Chocolate’s Secret Ingredients: The Shift From Adulterated Chocolate to Pure

Merriam-Webster defines to adulterate as, “to make something, such as a food or drink, impure or weaker by adding something of poor quality.” The huge demand for chocolate during the 19th century made it a desirable good for producers and sellers to adulterate in order to increase their profits. Once these dishonest and often harmful practices were widely publicized, marketing oneself as a purveyor of pure chocolate became key to success. The adulterated chocolate epidemic and subsequent pure chocolate mania therefore stemmed from economic practicality; using cheap ingredients remained in favor until it was no longer profitable, at which point producers were left with no choice but to favor quality over quantity in order to sustain sales and remain competitive.

Confirming the old “necessity is the mother of invention” adage, chocolate producers and sellers used an astonishing variety of methods to adulterate their chocolate. Between 1815 and 1875 in France, powdered dried peas, rice and lentil flours, potato starch, wheat or barley flour, cacao shells, gum, dextrin, and ground brick were commonly used as additives, and olive oil, sweet almond oil, egg yolks, or suet of veal or mutton were used as substitutions for cacao butter, which was extracted and sold separately (Coe and Coe, 243-244). Replacing expensive ingredients with cheaper ones sacrificed product safety as well as taste, since some of these ingredients went rancid quickly and were toxic. These problems were also prevalent in the US, and The Dessert Book (1872) discussed adulteration with red or yellow ocher, red lead, and vermilion and ways to detect their presence (Coe and Coe, 244). The entire book can be found through the link below:

The Dessert Book (1872)

This willingness to sacrifice taste, to sell rapidly spoiling chocolate, and to use poisonous ingredients demonstrates that producers and merchants would stop at nothing to maximize their profits.

The food business is still a business, and economically motivated alterations in quality continue to occur. As highlighted in the 2014 Business Insider article below, cocoa butter is still replaced by cheaper fats, especially when its prices are high.

Business Insider Article

Palm oil is one of the most common substitutions, and producers use the highest quantity that they can get away with. Products in Asia and Europe can have up to 5% of the cocoa butter replaced by an equivalent, but products in the US cannot be labeled chocolate if they use cocoa butter alternatives (Pardomuan and Nicholson, 2014). This does not seem to be a major deterrent for US companies, which choose to adjust their labels. Hershey’s decided to cut costs instead of raising prices in 2008 by adding more palm oil to their “Kissables.” So, in accordance with FDA regulations, they changed the label from “Candy Coated Milk Chocolate” to “Chocolate Candy” (Marco, 2008).

Chocolate companies certainly did not abandon their use of cheap and dangerous substitutes of their own free will; they did it out of necessity as consumer awareness grew. It was not until 1850 that a health commission for the analysis of foods was created and announced in the British medical journal The Lancet (Coe and Coe, 244). The subsequent analyses in both England and France found that 39 out of 70 samples derived their color from red ocher from ground bricks and that most contained starch grains from potatoes or from Canna giganta and arrowroot (Coe and Coe, 244). These startling results led to the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and to the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872 (Coe and Coe, 244).

The 1860 Act allowed the appointment of public analysts to deal with suspected food presented by private citizens, and the 1872 Act made it an offense to sell food, drink, or drugs that were not of the ‘nature, substance or quality’ demanded by the purchaser and permitted inspectors and private individuals to acquire samples of food for analysis (Bassett, 34). This led to increased sampling and detection of food adulteration. Once these harmful practices were made transparent to the public, chocolate companies had to find a way to recover or risk losing their businesses. Cadbury’s solution to the imminent decline in sales after admitting to the use of starch and flour to adulterate their chocolate was to launch updated advertising campaigns. These were meant to convince consumers that Cadbury’s was the only pure chocolate on the market, and featured the “Absolutely Pure, Therefore Best” slogan (Coe and Coe, 245). The image below shows an 1885 Cadbury’s Cocoa add that emphasizes this quality, guaranteeing its purity in the body of the advertisement and repeating this sentiment several more times in the descriptive text below it.

This tactic proved successful and forced other companies to defend themselves against accusations of impurity. By 1897, Fry & Sons had a dearth of sales compared to Cadbury’s that they were never able to bounce back from (Coe and Coe, 245).

Recent Cadbury advertisements do not address purity, and instead focus on the product’s ability to bring joy to the consumer. A 2007 Cadbury commercial featuring a gorilla drumming to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” ends with a picture of a Cadbury dairy milk bar and the tag “a glass and a half full of joy.”

Another, from 2014, shows a logistics manager joyfully lip syncing and dancing to Baccara’s ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’ after eating a piece of Cadbury dairy milk chocolate. This time, the end tag is “#FreeTheJoy.”

It seems that since food safety regulations have become so much stricter over the past century that companies no longer need to draw attention to their purity and safety. This basic level of safety is assumed, so companies, like Cadbury’s, turn to the desirable mental/emotional effects of eating their chocolate in order to compete with other brands and to sustain sales. Whether it means focusing on quality over quantity or vice versa, decisions made by chocolate producers and sellers throughout time have been driven by money and competition. Whatever sells the most chocolate wins.

Works Cited:

A Boston Lady. The Dessert Book: A Complete Manual From the Best American and Foreign Authorities With Original Economical Recipes. Boston: J.E. Tilton and Company, 1872. Online. 8 March 2015.

Bassett, W.H., ed. Clay’s Handbook of Environmental Health. 8th ed. London: E & FN Spon, 1999. Print.

Cadbury. “Yes Sir, I WILL boogie in the Office — New Cadbury Dairy Milk TV ad.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 8 March 2015.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print. Web. 8 March 2015.’s_Cocoa_advert_with_rower_1885.jpg. Web. 8 March 2015.

Macegrove. “Cadbury’s Gorilla Advert Aug31st 2007.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 31 Aug. 2007. Web. 8 March 2015.

Marco, Meg. “Hershey’s “Kissables” No Longer Legally Considered “Milk Chocolate”?” Consumerist, 8 August 2008. Web. 8 March 2015.

Pardomuan, Lewa and Marcy Nicholson. “Cocoa Butter Prices are Surging.” Business Insider, 5 Sept. 2014. Web. 8 March 2015.


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