When reading the word chocolate, you might be led astray - that last syllable, '-late', is very similar to the Italian 'latte' or even the French 'lait', both meaning 'milk'. And indeed, loads of commercial chocolate bars on the market count milk as one of their ingredients. But the origins of chocolate are actually Nahuatl, or Aztec, and the etymology of the word chocola-tl means 'chocolate bean' plus the a-tl meaning water. And by nature, chocolate itself is in fact, vegan. The cacao bean from which cocoa powder and cocoa butter is derived - the main ingredients in chocolate products around the world, and what makes chocolate, chocolate - is a seed from the cocoa tree native to Central America.
Those seed fruits are picked, fermented, dried, pulsed and sieved, and then added as one of the main ingredients into different types of chocolates and chocolate products. By default, cocoa beans are vegan.
However, it’s the way in which chocolate processing has evolved, and the other ingredients combined with it, that has blurred the lines.
Originally, the Aztecs would turn the cocoa bean into a vegan drink mixed with water and offer it to their gods in ceremonial rituals. It’s only when the Spanish conquerors brought cocoa back to Spain that they started adding milk and sugar to it to soften the very bitter taste. From then on, the sweetened and creamier version became the popular option and is what we mostly see on the market today.
What chocolate is actually vegan?
Now that we’ve established that it is possible for chocolate to be vegan, how do you determine which bars are suitable? There are essentially two types of vegan chocolates: dark chocolate that has no animal-derived products anyway, and chocolates made with alternative dairy-free milks. The highest percentage of dark chocolates are vegan, as they won’t have any milk products added to them. Chocolates that are 100% cocoa are certainly vegan as they won’t have anything else besides chocolate matter.
Anything between 65-100% MOST likely is, but once again you should probably check the ingredients before coming to that conclusion. Traditional milk chocolate, as you might guess from the name, contains milk and is definitely not vegan friendly. However some chocolate companies use coconut or another plant-based milk to replace dairy for a creamy and smooth flavour, so even vegans can enjoy a 'milk' chocolate.
Vegan-approved ingredients that you might see on a bar include cocoa butter, cocoa powder, chocolate liquor, certain sweeteners, and vanilla. Some chocolates might be 'accidentally vegan', meaning that they aren’t labelled as vegan, but there are still no traces of animal-derived ingredients. A generally safe rule of thumb to follow is that the more ingredients there are on a chocolate bar or candy, the more likely it is to not be vegan.
However, you might still need to check the entire ingredient listing and make sure there are no dairy or animal products to determine that for sure. Milk products might be hiding under the names of 'whey', 'casein', or 'lactose', so be sure to be on the lookout for these as well. Additions like caramel, truffle, toffee, and peanut butter are best avoided as they might contain dairy products. And if cholesterol is higher than 0%, chances are something in there isn’t vegan since cholesterol is mostly found in animal products.
Besides the obvious milk products, it’s important to note that certain added enzymes or ingredients such as 'natural flavours' might be animal-derived or tested on animals. Some strict vegans will also avoid honey or refined sugar as it can be processed with animal products as well, although that’s up to personal choice. If you’re doubtful, best to avoid chocolates with these ingredients listed unless the chocolate company specifically certifies it’s vegan. If you’re strictly avoiding dairy or you’ve got a dairy allergy you might also want to check the allergen statement which will not only tell you if there is dairy present but also if any of the ingredients were processed in a faculty with dairy products, resulting in cross contamination.
Vegan chocolate is now pretty easy to find. And you’ll find it not just in candy bars, but also flavouring ice creams, cookies, cereals and more. Those same darker chocolates that are usually vegan also tend to be healthier, as they’re packed with antioxidants.
The good news is that the higher the cocoa content of chocolate, the more nutritional benefits it brings. As well as containing a reasonably high percentage of soluble fibre, it is also loaded with minerals such as iron, magnesium, copper, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium. A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with a 70-85% cocoa content can even give you 98% of your recommended daily intake of manganese, a mineral that is good for your bones and helps process other foods. As well as being a prime source of antioxidants, dark chocolate also has an excellent fatty acid profile and may reduce your risk of heart disease. What more excuse do you need?
Is white chocolate vegan?
White chocolate is only made with cocoa butter from the cacao tree, to which is then added sugar, vanilla, milk products, and usually lecithin as an emulsifier. The debate over whether or not white chocolate should even be considered 'real' chocolate is long-winded. Chocolate or not, it certainly is possible to make it vegan. As with milk chocolate, it is possible to replace the milk-derived powders and ingredients with plant-based milks like oat, rice, coconut, or almond. Common ingredients vegan white chocolate might contain vegan cane sugar, and natural thickeners and emulsifiers that are plant-based - some of these might have funny names like tragacanth gum or maltodextrin, but if they’re naturally-derived you can feel a bit better about it. Other ingredients might include rice drink powder, almond semolina, and of course vanilla extract and seeds for that classic creamy flavour. And again, just make sure to check the ingredients and allergens listed if you’re looking for a vegan alternative to white chocolate.
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