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Ah, chocolate. It’s easily one of the most beloved sweets in the world, but someone new to a vegan diet may be confused by this confectionary creation. With so many chocolates containing milk products and ambiguous ingredients like cocoa butter, you may be left wondering, “Is chocolate vegan?” To answer this, we need to understand what goes into making chocolate.
What is chocolate made of?
Chocolate treats may be full of a variety of filler ingredients, but in its purest form, chocolate boils down to just three components: cocoa butter, chocolate liquor, and sugar. Cocoa butter, the rich fat extracted from roasted cocoa beans, gives chocolate the smooth, melt-in-your-mouth consistency that makes it so irresistible.
Chocolate liquor is a mixture of cocoa butter and what’s known to chocolatiers as “cocoa mass,” which is essentially ground up cocoa nibs. Sugar obviously sweetens the treat, as most consumers would find chocolate far too bitter without it. Check out my “Is Sugar Vegan?” article for a few eye-openers on that particular ingredient, too.
For a more in-depth look at the chocolate-making process, check out this informative video (warning: it will make you crave chocolate):
What chocolate is vegan?
While chocolate is a relatively simple concoction, it comes in many different forms, some vegan and some not. Let’s investigate the most common types of chocolate and figure out once and for all if they’re suitable for a plant-based diet.
Is dark chocolate vegan? In short, it should be, as dark chocolate represents chocolate in its purest form and should only contain the three main ingredients required to make chocolate. However, not all dark chocolates are made the same.
Dark chocolates made by some of the most well-known chocolate brands often contain milk products and other additives as filler to lower the cost of production and maximize profits. For example, these are the ingredients of Hershey’s Dark Chocolate, in order by weight: sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, cocoa processed with alkali, milk fat, lactose, soy lecithin, PGPR (short for Polyglycerol polyricinoleate — try saying that three times fast!), vanillin, and milk. So, if you were wondering, “Is Hershey’s Dark Chocolate vegan?”, the answer is a pretty unequivocal no!
This more or less represents what you might expect to see from major chocolate producers who prioritize quantity over quality — more sugar than cocoa, and tons of unnecessary milk products.
Thankfully, vegan dark chocolates are plentiful. To satisfy your dark chocolate craving the responsible way, try something like 365 Everyday Value’s Dark Chocolate with Almonds, Unreal’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Gems (a vegan version of peanut M&Ms — yes, please!), or Lake Champlain’s Peruvian Dark Chocolate Bar.
As you may have guessed, conventionally made milk chocolates are definitely not vegan. Milk chocolate is made with milk powder to give the chocolate a lighter, creamier taste in contrast to the deep, rich flavor of pure dark chocolate. This addition, again, cheapens the cost of making chocolate, while also significantly reducing the actual “chocolatey-ness” of the product. In fact, the FDA allows milk chocolates to contain as little as 10 percent cocoa, and still call themselves chocolate. The nerve!
While it may be disappointing to learn that your favorite milk chocolate is not the least bit vegan (and barely even chocolate), there are cruelty-free alternatives that taste just as great, if not better. For a light, milky chocolate sans animal suffering, try a rice milk-based chocolate instead, such as PASCHA’s 46% cocoa milk chocolate bar, or this chocolatey delight made by iChoc. I bet you (and your non-vegan friends) won’t even be able to taste the difference!
Is white chocolate vegan?
White chocolate is traditionally made from cocoa butter, sugar, and milk solids, typically making it non-vegan. However, there are vegan versions of just about anything you can imagine, and white chocolate is no exception. The aforementioned PASCHA makes an organic vegan white chocolate bar as well. If you’re in the mood for something more decadent, try Rescue Chocolate’s white chocolate truffles made from cashews, or better yet, make your own vegan white chocolate with this recipe from onegreenplanet.com.
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Is hot chocolate vegan?
There is something deeply nostalgic and comforting about a steaming cup of decadent hot chocolate, but is this childhood favorite something that vegans can enjoy? While many brands of hot cocoa powders do contain milk products, such as the popular Swiss Miss, there are plenty of vegan options available. Even Starbucks offers vegan-friendly hot cocoa mixes, including their Classic and Double Chocolate varieties.
If a more wholesome or gourmet cup of cocoa is what you seek, try Nibmor’s Traditional Drinking Chocolate mix, Lakanto’s sugar-free drinking chocolate mixed sweetened with monk fruit, or Cacoco’s original drinking chocolate mix infused with cinnamon and nutmeg. All you have to do is stir your mix into the boiling plant-based milk of your choice to enjoy a cup of vegan hot chocolate in minutes (but please, don’t forget to let it cool first).
Of course, nothing can quite beat the taste of hot chocolate made from scratch. If you have five minutes to spare, you can try this simple but delicious hot cocoa recipe from minimalistbaker.com. For something more exciting than plain ol’ hot chocolate, try a traditional Mexican cocoa to wake up your taste buds with a subtle kick of cayenne.
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Choosing the right chocolate
As vegans, we’re always striving to live as ethically as possible, not only for the sake of farmed animals, but for our fellow humans involved in the production of our food as well. That is why it’s important to know how to identify chocolates that are both vegan and ethically sourced.
Chocolate, as you know, is made from the humble cocoa bean, which can only grow successfully in a narrow strip of the globe. About 70 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from just two West African countries: Ivory Coast and Ghana. Both of these countries are deeply impoverished, with cocoa farmers making a mere 50 cents and 84 cents per day in Ivory Coast and Ghana, respectively.
Adding to the ethical dilemma of cocoa production is the growing issue of child labor and slavery within this industry, particularly in western Africa. Children as young as five years old may be sent to work on cocoa farms in this region, earning cents per day if anything at all, in order to ease the financial burden placed on their already impoverished families. These underaged workers toil for hours in the sun, clearing brush with chainsaws and hacking open cacao pods with sharp machetes that leave them maimed and scarred.
Chocolate is delicious, but it is certainly not worth exploiting poor cocoa farmers or enslaving children, so what is an ethical vegan to do? Buying fair trade certified chocolate and cocoa products is a huge step in the right direction, but even this certification is not an absolute guarantee that no child labor was used or that farmers were paid fairly. The only way to be sure your chocolate is ethical is by taking on the daunting task of individually assessing each and every brand and determining the source of their cocoa. Yikes!
Fortunately, the activists behind the Food Empowerment Project have done the work so you don’t have to. This food justice organization has compiled an extensive list of chocolates that they do and do not recommend based on their sourcing, making it easier to buy ethically. (As they state on their site, all of the recommended brands have vegan options available, but are not necessarily all-vegan companies, so be sure to read ingredient labels to be safe.)
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Is chocolate vegan? Answered!
So, is everyone’s favorite sweet treat vegan? The answer is both yes and no. There are tons of vegan chocolates out there, but there are even more non-vegan ones, so you must remain diligent when determining what chocolate is vegan. Perhaps just as important as making sure your chocolate is vegan is making sure that it’s not made from child labor and slavery.
Once you’ve found the perfect chocolate for you, feel free to make as many chocolatey recipes as your heart desires, because even vegans need to indulge every once in a while!