Redefining “Purity”: The Evolution of Chocolate Adulteration

The legal definition of adulterated food is: “food that is generally impure, unsafe, or unwholesome ( Since before the Victorian era, horrific accounts of food adulteration have tainted the food industry, and chocolate was not spared. Throughout the 19th century, chocolate’s rising demand made it a ripe target for adulteration (Coe and Coe, Ch. 9). By analyzing the concept of purity and adulteration in the context of chocolate, a critical trend in food adulteration as a whole is evident. Due to advances in science over time, the rise of large food industry conglomerates, and an expanding market for cheap food, adulteration has flourished in complexity, and the concept of purity has become hard to define.

The first half of the 19th century brought rapid growth of industrial towns in England and the development of the manufacturing industry stirred social change by removing people from the means of primary production (Goody, 85). Fast forward to the early twentieth century and the problem has only compounded. To raise awareness, media portrayals of food attempted to reveal these atrocities and warn consumers. Upton Sinclair’s groundbreaking expose, The Jungle published in 1906, ruthlessly and graphically exposed adulteration practices across the food industry, largely focusing on the meatpacking industry.

This image taken from Sinclair’s The Jungle, highlights the wide range of adulteration practices within a variety range of food industries. By removing the human hand from food production, products carry more risk and uncertainty.

The image above from Part 3, entitled “Food Was Not as it Seemed,” illustrates everything from a leather boot to arsenic being dumped into an urn of industrially produced butter. Though the USDA was established in 1862, Sinclair’s accounts were a demand for stronger infrastructure. The Jungle shocked the nation and directly resulted in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which prevented the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded foods (“FSIS History”).

Chocolate was not spared, and during the 19th chocolate was adulterated with everything from powered dried peas, potato starch, veal, and even egg yolks (Coe and Coe, Ch.9). If chocolate could be produced more cheaply, then lower classes could become consumers. Chocolate adulteration was no secret, however, and people began to develop “tests” to determine genuine content before regulation practices were implemented. Companies such as Cadbury also began to enter the media war on food adulteration by including promises of purity in their advertisements.

This Cadbury’s print ad from 1897 illustrates the worry of contamination and the motivation for companies to assert their quality by advertising their high standards.

“Contains no alkalies” and “Absolutely Pure, therefore, Best,” were slogans used to ensure customers of the quality of Cadbury’s product. Consumers did, however have reason to worry. In the mid-19th century, an investigation commissioned by a British medical journal found 39 of 70 chocolate samples had been colored with red brick (Harwitch, 147). While adulteration was a growing issue during the 19th and early 20th centuries, contemporary advances in food science and chemistry during late 29th and early 21st century would give adulteration an a new meaning.

Though consumers of contemporary mass-produced chocolates are unlikely to find bricks or potato starch in their chocolate bars, adulteration is far from over. To comply with FDA legislations, however, it has taken on a complex role. Hard-to-detect forms of adulterated chocolate made possible by modern technologies are a concern for even the observant consumer. Because cocoa butter is a high-profit commodity in the pharmaceutical industry, and has experienced a dramatic increase in price, manufacturers often separate the cocoa butter and substitute cheaper vegetable fats, such as lecithin and palm oil (Coe and Coe, Ch.9). Candy bar lovers should check out this 2008 article from ABC news scrutinizing ingredient lists of bars such Take 5, Mr. Goodbar, and Baby Ruth. Unfortunately, cocoa butter is not a frequent constituent.

Though Sharon Leitner, a Take 5 lover interviewed for the article, claimed the substitution of cheaper fats tasted “waxy and artificial,” petitions from consumers and small chocolatiers have had little success (Gomstyn). This suggests the average consumer either doesn’t care, or, arguably worse, doesn’t notice.  Issues of equality are also raised here, as Hershey’s bars and kisses are still made with cocoa butter. Just as name-brand foods often produce a cheaper, generic equivalent to gain another share of the market through capturing the lower income consumer, individual chocolate companies seem to be creating a spectrum of products by sacrificing quality for the sake of a dollar. Clearly, the players in the game of adulterating chocolate have gotten sneaky.

The most dominant issue regarding food adulteration involves questions of equality in food choices and what we consider “pure” in the food industry. Because chocolate adulteration has taken on a more complex meaning, marketing schemes have evolved with the definition of pure itself. Rather than claiming “no vegetable fats,” as would be the twentieth century parallel of the 1897 Cadbury ad, campaigns today tend to shift the focus of “purity” from a literal to a figurative sense. Rather than communicating exactly what is in their products, companies tend to complicate the meaning of pure by elevating it to a more conceptual level, such as this recent Hershey’s campaign.

Rather than highlighting the quality of its ingredients, the Hershey’s brand wants viewers to associate its chocolate with purity and happiness. Even if you can’t afford “real” chocolate, you can enjoy Hershey’s and still have “pure” chocolate. Thus, this complicates who considers which foods “pure,” leading to large-scale ambiguities.

Food has been adulterated, domesticated, manipulated, and genetically modified for centuries. Rather than solving problems these processes present, regulations imposed on food encourage companies to find loopholes to increase profits. I believe the hardest part to eliminating adulteration practices lies in eliminating the market for them. With a widening socioeconomic gap in developed countries such as the U.S., lower classes are a key market for companies looking to produce cheap products. Therefore, as long as there someone will buy these modern day adulterated goods, companies will be hard-pressed to stop producing them.


“Adulterated Food Law and Legal Definition,” 2015. USLegal.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

“FSIS History” USDA. Updated Sept 2014. url:

Gomstyn, Alice. “Chocolate Lovers Pained by Candy Changes,” ABC News. 2008.

Goody, Jack. 2013. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” In Food and Culture. ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. pp. 72-88

Harwitch, Nikita, 1992. Historie du chocolat. Paris: Editions Desjonqueres.

Multimedia Sources

(1) Image from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: Part 3: Food Was Not as it Seemed, 1906.

(2) Cadbury Advertisement, 1897

(3) Gomstyn, Alice. “Chocolate Lovers Pained by Candy Changes,” ABC News. 2008

(4) Hershey’s Commercial, 2008.


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