Am I Supposed To Like Dark Chocolate?

Before I was married, it was my understanding that milk chocolate was a luxury. When my mother made cookies with milk chocolate chips as opposed to semi-sweet or dark, I considered it especially wonderful. Because my father loved to take me on dessert dates to have perfectly presented milk chocolate mousses and rich, creamy milk hot chocolates, I was largely unaware of dark chocolate and its gourmet esteem.

Then I married a man for whom dark chocolate meant the world. Little by little, he converted me. It began with dark chocolate marzipan and eventually ended with dark hot chocolate from a specialty café in Cambridge. As I shared my conversion to “the dark side” with my parents, my father inquired, as I am sure many want-to-be-foodies have as well, “Am I supposed to like dark chocolate?”

According to the prevalence of commentary on the subject and unequal presence in retail and dining availability, there exists compelling evidence that dark and milk chocolate are socially stigmatized. Likely, this the result of a myriad of non-explicit but nevertheless forceful suggestions that dark chocolate is associated with elite, more sophisticated consumers, for whom the complexity of cacao production (i.e. bean variety, terroir, and ingredient quality) appeals, and that milk chocolate is an adulterated and undesirable product because of its low cacao and high sugar content, and associated appeal to less refined consumers.

HISTORICAL PREFERENCE

Sophie and Michael Coe explain in their book, The True History of Chocolate that “The first person to combine milk with chocolate was the Englishman Nicholas Sanders in 1727. …This was not really ‘milk chocolate’ as we know it, but a drink made of chocolate liquor and hot milk. The invention of true milk chocolate was a collaboration between two men.”[1] The men to whom they refer are Henri Nestlé and Daniel Peter. In 1879, they produced milk chocolate using Nestlé’s invention of condensed milk. Later that same year, Rudolphe Lindt invented the conching machine, which functioned to produce a smoother, more refined texture in chocolates.

Since 1879, the production of milk chocolate has been altered a great deal. A 2008 New York Times article on the subject explains, “Milk chocolate became one of the great cheap luxuries of the industrial age. [It] relies on a predictable formula of cacao, dairy, sugar and emulsifiers that stretch the expensive cacao solids as far as they can go…Milk went from being an enrichment to just another filler: condensed milk was gradually replaced by combinations of nonfat milk powder and even vegetable oil.” [2]

In her book The New Taste of Chocolate, Maricel Presilla summarizes historical preferences based on geography. “Germans tend to hate the intense bitter chocolate adored in France. Americans gravitate to very light and French people to a very dark milk chocolate. The Swiss and the Japanese go in and in hand in their love for buttery, high-fat, slick and satiny chocolate.”[3]

RETAIL PRESENCE

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Dark/Milk Chocolate at Whole Foods: In general, Whole Foods, a grocery store that caters to health-obsessed socially and politically conscious persons, offers more dark chocolate products.

IMG_3789Dark/Milk Chocolate at CVS Drug Stores: In contrast, CVS Drug Stores, a convenience store that caters to a wider and comparatively less wealthy group of consumers, offers more milk chocolate products.

This comparison suggests at a very simple level that dark chocolate appeals to a more selective group of consumers, and that the preference for milk chocolate is associated with people who in general, have less refined or “cheap” tastes.

The writings of Michael D’Antonio offer relevant and interesting insight into the historical preference for milk chocolate in America. In his essay, “Hershey” he explains that “Anyone who knew Swiss milk chocolate would have detected the unusual taste and may have found Hershey’s candy unpleasant. But in the mouths of people who had never tried the stuff made in Europe, Hershey’s milk chocolate would be a revelation.”[4] Many food writers substantiate that claim today. Europeans dislike American chocolate, and Americans (in general) do not know what they are missing. Perhaps because the chocolate preferences of many American consumers has been shaped by sour or poorly made chocolate, they are less likely to develop a taste for better milk chocolate, and even less likely to develop a taste for high-quality dark chocolate.

With this retail based context, it is interesting to consider to what extent these stigmas are consistent in the opinions of professional chocolatiers and connoisseurs of chocolate.

PROFESSIONAL DEBATE

In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe recount an interview of Chantal Coady, founder of The Chocolate Society. They note, “Her group is not for so-called ‘chocoholics’ –these, in her view, are not addicted to chocolate but to sugar, and thus suffer from an eating disorder. According to her, the only necessary ingredients for good chocolate are pure, unadulterated ‘cocoa solids’ (the higher the proportion the better), blended with a little cacao butter and a small amount of sugar. As for commercial ‘chocolate’ its principle ingredients are sugar, solid, vegetable fat, and powdered milk. ‘These dietary villains,’ she holds, ‘are responsible for chocolate’s undeserved reputation as a fattening, tooth-rotting, addictive indulgence.’”[5]

Coady’s commentary is essentially in line with what journalist Julia Moskin of the New York Times observes when she explains that “These cacao cultists (and new evidence that dark chocolate is somewhat healthful) have provoked chocolate makers to keep stripping chocolate down, eliminating distractions like emulsifiers, vanilla and sometimes even sugar.”[6]

Such severe opinions from chocolate connoisseurs supports the notion that dark chocolate is the best, most pure and desirable from in which to consume cacao, and suggests that all knowledgeable cacao consumers share the opinion that more cacao and less “everything else” is better.

A survey conducted by the Today Show sheds more light on the matter.

Last October, Today Food (an affiliate of the “Today Show”) published an article that addressed the dark chocolate/milk chocolate divide. They rounded up some of the biggest names in Chocolate included among them, Dominique Ansel and Jaques Torres) to ask for their vote. Each chef provided a brief summary of their sentiments and their final vote. Eleven chefs participated, and dark chocolate won. Six votes went to dark, four to milk, and one chef was left completely undecided.[7]

The findings of this survey indicate something very important about the stereotypes surrounding dark and milk chocolate: In spite of the fact that dark chocolate was favored more than milk chocolate among professionals, milk chocolate is not far behind. The idea that dark chocolate is preferred more by those who know the most or care the most about the cacao industry is less true than is assumed by those who are immersed in the industry.

After reading the responses of famed chocolatiers and bakers, I became curious to discover if the divide in preference inside the professional culinary world mirrored the divide in preference outside it.

AMATEUR SURVEY AND DISCUSSION

On a late Saturday evening, I invited friends to participate in a survey, tasting and discussion on chocolates. To begin, I provided a short overview of bean-to-bar chocolate production. I explained bean variety and terroir, as well as relevant governmental regulations on food labeling.

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The purpose of my survey was to analyze the attendee’s relationships with dark and milk chocolate. Nine women with various backgrounds, familial circumstances and levels of education participated. The survey asked the following questions:

  1. Do you prefer milk or dark chocolate?
    1. Dark
    2. Milk
  2. What is the “darkest” or highest cacao percentage chocolate product you prefer?
    1. 50% or lower
    2. 60%
    3. 70%
    4. 80% or higher
  3. Have your preferences for dark or milk chocolate evolved as you have moved, formed new relationships, or became more educated about the products?
    1. Yes
    2. No
  4. Is your preference for dark or milk chocolate generally consistent?
    1. Yes
    2. No
  5. Do added ingredients impact your preference to milk or dark chocolate?
    1. Yes, I am more likely to enjoy dark chocolate that includes nuts, fruit, pastes, etc.
    2. No, my preference for dark chocolate does not change. I always prefer it.
    3. Yes, I am more likely to enjoy milk chocolate that includes nuts, fruit, pastes, etc.
    4. No, my preference for milk chocolate does not change. I always prefer it.

The survey results were as follows:

  1. Of nine attendees, eight prefer dark chocolate, and only one prefers milk.
  2. Five participants prefer dark chocolate that is labeled 80% or higher, one preferred 70%, one preferred 60%, and two preferred 50% or lower.
  3. All but two attendees reported that their preferences for milk or dark chocolate have evolved.
  4. Five participants responded that their preferences are consistent, while four responded that their preferences are not.
  5. Four participants indicated that their preference for dark chocolate does not change and two indicated that they are more likely to enjoy milk chocolate that includes nuts, fruit, pastes, etc. Two participants indicated that they are more likely to enjoy dark chocolate that includes nuts, fruit, pastes, etc. One participant indicated that she is more likely to enjoy milk and dark chocolate that includes nuts, fruit, pastes, etc.

The results of this survey are interesting given the diversity of the group. I was surprised by the dominant preference for dark chocolate. The conversation that followed the on-paper survey was illuminating. All but three of the women explained that they previously preferred milk chocolate, but have grown to enjoy dark chocolate in adulthood. Two of the other women stated that their parents introduced them to dark chocolate when they were young, and as a result, never developed a taste for milk chocolate. The final participant said that she has never cared for dark chocolate more than milk chocolate, and that she will likely will not in the future.

It was this relationship to a milk chocolate past that made the guided tasting to follow an exciting experience.

IMG_3746

The first chocolate tasted was a 67% dark chocolate bar made by Michel Cluizel. Most of the women observed a fruity smell to the bar prior to tasting it, and all remarked on its astringency and their need for water. One woman remarked, “this is about my limit on dark chocolate.” This was interesting, because (when I reviewed her survey) she had reported to prefer chocolate that is labeled 80% or higher. This is perhaps indicative of the subconscious idea that she is “supposed to” like dark chocolate.

The second chocolate tasted was a 72% dark chocolate bar with candied black figs made by Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate. The commentary following the tasting centered on the power of the candied figs to make 72% dark chocolate seem less dark. To wit, many women said they might not have liked the chocolate plain. This is evidence of how preference for milk or dark chocolate changes based on ingredients that distract from or add to the bitterness of the cacao.

The third chocolate tasted was by far the favorite of the group. It was a 75% dark chocolate bar made by François Pralus. Before the cacao content percentage was revealed, the women noted that this seemed the “creamiest” and “lightest” of the bars, and were shocked to learn that it was 75%. They also noted that it provided the most pleasant aftertaste. After everyone had tasted and I explained more about the bar, some women guessed that the “lightness” of the chocolate could be attributed to the terroir of “Madagascar Criollo.”

The fourth chocolate tasted was a Mast Brothers goat milk chocolate bar. Before the chocolate had made its way around the room and I had revealed the type of chocolate it was, one woman blurted, “Is this goat cheese chocolate?!” Compared to the other chocolates, some women believed this to be the most fragrant. The response to this chocolate was split. Some women, especially those who do not care for goat cheese, felt that the goat milk was overpowering. Of the women who did say like goat cheese, they enjoyed the tangy aftertaste of the chocolate sample. All of the women were surprised to learn that the milky-ness came from goat milk powder, as opposed to actual milk. It was at this time that we paused to talk about the use of milk powders in milk chocolate, even in craft and fine chocolates.

The fifth chocolate tasted was a Naïve Chocolatier 54% dark milk chocolate bar. The response to this chocolate was more unanimous than expected. Six women reported to “love” it. Two women said it was more sweet than what they usually prefer, but that they really enjoyed it. Only one woman said that it was “absolutely too sweet.”

The sixth and final chocolate tasted was a Theo orange 70% dark chocolate bar. Many women noted its fruitiness, but could not identify the orange in the chocolate from smell alone, but could tell it was orange after tasting it. The preference for this chocolate was determined more by their unrelated preference for citrus than for the chocolate itself.

CONCLUSION

The stigmatization of dark chocolate as a superior product to milk chocolate is rooted in historical and contemporary evidence. To be sure, countless chocolatiers and connoisseurs prefer dark chocolate. As Maricel Presilla accurately articulates, “A rising generation of chocolate connoisseurs has gravitated decisively to new-school versions of chocolate marked by high content of cacao, strong chocolate flavor, decidedly more bitter than sweet—even in milk chocolate.”[8] Nevertheless, my research on the topic of dark chocolate compared to milk chocolate suggests that while the stigmatization is substantiated, it is exaggerated. Many more chocolatiers and connoisseurs prefer milk chocolate than might be expected. According to the results of the tasting I conducted, it may be true that many more connoisseurs believe that they prefer the darkest dark chocolates because they have answered the question, “Am I supposed to like dark chocolate?” affirmatively.

Works Cited

[1] Sopie D. Coe, Michael D. Coe “The True History of Chocolate” (1996) P. 246

[2] Julia Moskin, New York Times, “Dark May Be King, But Milk Chocolate Makes a Move” (2008)

[3] Maricel E. Presilla, “The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised” (2009)

[4] Michael D’Antonio, “Hershey: Milkton S. Hersehy’s Extordinary Life of Wealth, Empire and Utopian Dreams (Selections) P.135

[5] Sopie D. Coe, Michael D. Coe “The True History of Chocolate” (1996) P.260

[6] Julia Moskin, New York Times, “Dark May Be King, But Milk Chocolate Makes a Move” (2008)

[7] Ellen Strum Niz, “Dark Versus Milk Chocolate? 11 Top Pastry Chefs Choose Sides, and the Results Will Surprise You” (2014)

[8] Maricel E. Presilla, “The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised” (2009) P. 136

*Online articles that delve deeper into the subject were influential in my research are here, here and here.

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