CHOCOLATE, sweet as it is, has set off bitter conflict since even before the conquistadors found Aztecs killing one another over cacao beans. It split families and estranged friends in the candy business to such a degree that when a Cadbury walked into a funeral for a rival he had done wrong, the widow shouted across Westminster Abbey, “Get out, devil!”
The Hershey and Mars dynasties fought legendary wars — internecine and with each other — for much of the 20th century. Now what big-time candy men had hoped would sneak by as a simple rule change has erupted into a food fight that will go far to define how America values culinary pleasure.
Real chocolate is made from crushed cacao beans, which provide not only solid cocoa mass but also cocoa butter that is vital to texture because, quite literally, it melts in your mouth. Industrial confectioners have petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to be able to replace cocoa butter with cheaper fats and still call the resulting product “chocolate.” The reason: the substitution would allow them to use fewer beans and to sell off the butter for cosmetics and such.
Advocates of substitution claim Europeans already do this. That comparison, whether a misunderstanding or an effort to mislead, is absurd.
When European companies tried to cut cocoa butter, the debate dragged on for a decade. In 2003, the European Union ruled that substitution had to be limited to 5 percent and only by a few specific oils that chemically resemble cocoa butter. This faux chocolate is clearly labeled “contains vegetable fats in addition to cocoa butter” — and is shunned by purists. The French like to call it “cocholat,” an epithet derived from their word for pig, cochon.
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In America, the Food and Drug Administration can act swiftly to change rules based on what it calls a citizen’s petition. Last year, “citizens” like the Grocery Manufacturers Association added new guidelines for chocolate onto an omnibus petition covering more than 200 foods that called for, among other things, altering food standards to “permit maximum flexibility in the food technology used to prepare the standardized food” and to allow “any alternative process that accomplishes the desired effect.”
This could have sweeping effects on food manufacturing overall; for chocolate in particular, the guidelines provide for no effective limit on how much cocoa butter can be substituted nor restrictions on what fats can be used. There is no attempt to mimic the real thing.
This might have passed unnoticed had a California chocolate maker, Gary Guittard, not banged the alarm. He rallied opposing forces; the F.D.A. extended its comment period to today. The agency says it isn’t making any immediate decision.
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As word of the chocolate petition spread in Europe, Old World masters reacted predictably. They had watched Americans finally catch on to the wonders of cacao, and are appalled at the idea that this could all be lost. As Jacques Genin, whose unmarked one-room Paris factory is a holy site for connoisseurs, said, everyone has a right to the joy of chocolate — and if most chocolate on the shelves is fake, only those who can afford creations like Mr. Genin’s will know how wonderful it is.
His fears are echoed among chocolatiers in France, Belgium, Italy and Spain as well as in the United States. And those fears are real.
The proposal would widen the gap between good and awful. Industrial food companies could sell their waxy cocholat for less. But purveyors of the real thing have no corners to cut. While discerning chocoholics will fork over whatever it takes, those who can’t pay will never know chocolate.
Proponents cloud the issue with dubious claims. Some say, for instance, the change would help growers and African children who toil for a pittance in cacao fields, without explaining exactly how. But in fact, it would lower the demand for beans.
When Americans learned to love olive oil, growers improved quality. In the same way, a chocolate revolution put a premium on better beans. But 90 percent of cacao farmers barely scratch by. They would suffer from lower demand, and so would their product.
Too much of what we eat is already ersatz-virtual, like “farm-fresh” Frankenstein produce or “home-baked” chemical cookies. No one who has savored real chocolate can be eager to see our beloved Theobroma cacao, the elixir of the gods, suffer this fate.