Is chocolate vegan?

It's delicious. It's healthy. But will it offend your vegan principles?

By Mike Lewis

Love Street chocolate

Photo: M. Verkerk and J. J. G. Claessens

"If I become vegan, will I have to give up chocolate?" That's one of the most common questions that we hear at Veg World. Unfortunately, there's no one-case-fits-all answer.

In its natural state, chocolate - that is, the product of the Theobroma cacao tree - is entirely plant-based, and is therefore completely compatible with a vegan diet. So you'll have no worries if you buy a slab of pure chocolate or a pack of pure cocoa powder. But to be sure that the product really is pure, you need to check the label.

Among the ingredients that you might see listed for a chocolate product are cocoa mass, cocoa solids, chocolate liquor, cocoa beans, cocoa paste and cocoa butter. These are all terms for pure chocolate in different states of processing, and none of them need give vegans cause for concern.

By the way, cocoa butter, despite its name, has got nothing to do with dairy butter, and chocolate liquor does not contain alcohol.

From bean to bar

However, completely pure chocolate products are rare. The vast majority of the chocolate bars that we buy contain added ingredients.

Love Street chocolate

Photo: Love Street Living Foods

Milk chocolate obviously contains milk - usually in the form of milk powder or condensed milk - as does white chocolate. So these are clearly products that vegans must avoid.

With dark chocolate (also known as plain chocolate), the picture is less clear. The better-quality products often contain no added ingredients other than sugar and perhaps a flavoring such as vanilla . But that's not always the case. Most of Green and Black's bars, for example, contain milk powder. That's a pity, given that many people rate the brand as the best chocolate you can buy

Fortunately, there are many vegan varieties of dark chocolate, although they are rarely marketed as such. So, again, it's a question of checking the label.

Some examples of brands that happen to be vegan are Newman's Own Organics (all their dark chocolate bars are vegan, but most of their other products aren't); Trader Joe's (the majority of their range is vegan); all Plamil chocolate products; and most products from Love Street Living Foods (including the 100% Organic Chocolate illustrated here).

What about drinking chocolate?

I mentioned earlier than pure cocoa powder is safe for vegans. But cocoa powder is not the same as drinking chocolate. The latter frequently contains dried milk, along with many other less familiar additives.

If you want to drink a cup of chocolate, your best bet is to make it with pure cocoa, and to add soy or dairy milk and sugar according to your preferences.

A word about lecithin

As you study the labels of chocolate bars, you'll often see lecithin listed among the ingredients. Lecithin is an emulsifier that's commonly used by confectionery manufacturers. It can come from either animal or plant sources, so it might or might not be vegan. Soy lecithin is acceptable to vegans, but lecithin sourced from egg yolk clearly isn't. If the label doesn't tell you the source, you'll probably want to play it safe and avoid the product.

Chocolate candy

Of course, chocolate doesn't just come in chocolate bars. It's also an essential ingredient in a huge variety of other confectionery products. In these cases, even if the chocolate itself is free of animal-sourced additives, it's likely that the rest of the product isn't. Assume that most mass-market candy bars are off the menu, unless the label specifically tells you otherwise.

In fact, some of these products are even unsuitable for vegetarians. That's because of the animal rennet used in their manufacture. In Europe, for example, Milky Way, Bounty and Twix fall into this category. Until recently, so did Mars Bars and Snickers, until protests from vegetarians caused a change in policy.

The bottom line

To sum up, chocolate in its pure form is perfectly acceptable to a vegan diet. Milk and white chocolate bars never are. Dark (plain) chocolate might or might not be, depending on the added ingredients. And most chocolate-covered candy bars probably aren't.

So start checking those labels, and enjoy the chocolate - when you find it.

October 2010

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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