It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of chocolate. I enjoy it in all its forms; unadulterated as a drinking chocolate, the way that indigineous Mesoamericans once consumed it; melded with a bit of sugar and shaped into bar form; and processed into cocoa powder to make brownies, cakes, and cookies. In fact, I consume chocolate every single day, with zero guilt. In moderation, it’s a delightful pick-me-up to be enjoyed morning, noon, or night (though not too late! Chocolate has stimulating properties that can affect sleep.)
One thing my passion for chocolate has taught me is that not all chocolate is created equally. Quality can vary greatly, from low-grade (think vending-machine candy bars) to high-end (there’s a growing cadre of artisan vegan chocolate producers making top-shelf bonbons). And you can really taste the difference. Once you’ve experienced the joy of sipping a mug of hot cacao made from pure Guatemalan dark chocolate, your palate will have a hard time going back to the supermarket varieties. And once you learn about the problems plaguing the chocolate industry, you’ll become a knowledgeable consumer and opt for exploitation-free varieties.
Cacao and colonialism
The way most of us consume chocolate today is not the way the original chocolate connoisseurs enjoyed it. Beginning 4,000 years ago, the Olmecs were fermenting, drying, and roasting the seeds of the theobroma cacao tree (harvested from football-size fruit pods) before frothing it with water and spices to produce a bitter elixir sipped during religious rituals. Later, the Aztecs adopted cacao as their ceremonial drink, and to mark significant life events including births, deaths, and marriages.
Spanish colonizers who swept through Mexico in the 1500s are credited with bringing pilfered cacao beans back to Europe and reimagining the sacred beverage as a sugary delicacy transformed into something we might recognize as hot chocolate today (in contemporary Spain, small cups of thick, accidentally-vegan hot chocolate are café-menu standards, and typically served with deep-fried churros).
In the early 19th century, the Dutch developed a process for removing the fat from the cacao paste, which allowed it to be dried and transformed into a powder that could then be used for making the prototype chocolate bars devoured by the billions around the world today. This changed the way chocolate is consumed in significant ways, creating a multi-billion dollar global market and making chocolate one of the most consumed foods on the planet.
Chocolate’s dark side
As chocolate became more fashionable, producers rushed to meet demand for this new and delicious commodity. The pursuit of profit created a climate ripe for exploitation of both land and labor. Today, 70 percent of the world’s cacao is produced in West Africa, where farmers are typically paid poverty wages. Worse is that child labor is common on cacao farms, where boys and girls as young as five years old are exploited in innumerable ways for the benefit of the world’s biggest chocolate producers.
It’s not all bad, though; a new wave of ethical chocolate producers is setting higher standards for how chocolate should be grown, harvested, manufactured, and, above all, how it should taste. For vegans, it’s not just as simple as scanning the ingredients for milk, butter, or whey; for exploitation-free chocolate, you’ll want to look for fair-trade certification labels, or better still, buy locally, direct from chocolate producers. They can explain their processes, where they source their raw materials, and tell you who grows and harvests their cacao.
There are myriad ways to consume chocolate, but if you’re going for bars, it’s important to understand what the percentages on the packaging imply. Whether choosing 72% or 85% or 99%, what that means is that the total weight of your bar of chocolate contains that specific percentage of actual cacao and cacao parts (including cacao butter), and the remaining percentage reflects the amount of sugar.
The ceremonial cacao that I drink every morning is 100% cacao, which gives me the option to add the amount of sweetness my palate prefers. The higher the cacao content, the greater the likelihood is that it will be bitter, so if you’re not a fan of that special variety of bitterness, opt for something with a lower cacao content.
Now, on to the fun stuff!
Over the years I’ve conducted plenty of research on vegan chocolate, and have winnowed down the many varieties into a pool of favorites that happen to be not just vegan, but ethically produced, too (keep in mind that small companies are sometimes bought by larger brands, and this can affect quality. Double-check if you have doubts!). And it goes without saying that every one of these is absolutely delicious. As you explore the many varieties of chocolate out there, you’ll discover what your taste buds prefer, whether that’s a creamy hazelnut-chocolate spread or a luscious white chocolate bar. However you choose to consume, be sure to savor every moment! Chocolate is truly one of life’s great pleasures.
For an extra-decadent experience, reach for any one of these amazing vegan truffles.
A little bite of chocolate is sometimes all you need. These are my favorites.
Chocolate and hazelnuts are a match made in heaven, and these spreads are divine.
Creating a special hot chocolate ritual with pure dark chocolate is a life-enhancing experience.
Looking for that perfect chocolate gift for friends and family? These are my go-tos.
I always seek out gourmet chocolate shops when I travel. These are some of my favorites.
Grezzo Raw Chocolate (Rome, IT)
Ara Chocolate (Paris, FR)
Mutari Chocolate (Santa Cruz, CA)
Choquiero Chocolate (Nevada City, CA)
Lagusta’s Luscious (New Palz, NY)
Nothing says I Love You like a homemade treat. Surprise your loved ones with one of these.
Craving more? Visit VegNews.com/chocolate for a comprehensive chocolate guide.