“Dirty” Chocolate: A Case Study of Food Adulteration

The practice of food adulteration, or replacing natural ingredients in a food item with cheaper products to boost volume and weight, has existed as long as the practice of trade itself. By the simple definition of profit equaling revenue minus costs, sellers are incentivized to cut costs to boost profits, sometimes via dishonest means such as substituting pure ingredients for cheaper alternatives. Food adulteration ran especially rampant in the Victorian era, and chocolate, after transitioning from a historically a highly-valued commodity to a food of the masses, was also subject to this grisly fate. In many ways, the adulteration of chocolate speaks to a larger trend in proliferation of food adulteration in the industrialization era, which saw innovations in mass production technologies, increasingly large conglomerates, and a legal system that struggled to keep up with a rapidly changing production landscape. Dishonest business behaviors such as this are unfortunate symptoms of rapid economic growth and ultimately manifests in distrust between consumers and corporations. This behavior was not just morally corrupt, but had posed very real health concerns for the public.

Adulteration of chocolate can be traced as far back as the pre-Columbian era, whereby “bones of giants” (suspected to be ancient fossils), were ground with chocolate (“Adulteration: The Dark World of ‘Dirty’ Chocolate”). In Europe, adulteration of cocoa was mentioned as early as the 1700s, when “bad chocolate sold at a lower price…included cacao shells, lots of sweet almonds, often a little beef marrow; …all linked together by means of some cooked flour and a little sugar” (“The Economics of Chocolate”). While the unscrupulous practice had long been in place, it reached fever pitch in the 1800s, whereby the now mass-produced chocolate made it an easy target for adulteration.


This is a page from the 1835 Spanish journal, El Instructor: Repertorio de Historia, Bellas Letras y Artes (Vol. 2, No. 24). It offers a scathing review of English chocolate adulteration: “This tendency carries over to cacao shells, which in Spain are thrown into the street as filth; yet many English prefer them to pure chocolate, having a legal right to import them, and where they’re sold in stores at a price that would make a Spaniard laugh.”

In 1815 France, chocolate concoctions included additives such as “powdered dried peas, flour made from ice or lentils, and potato starch (a favorite with such cheaters” (“The True History of Chocolate”). Sometimes, the adulteration of chocolate was justified under a guise of medicine. “Ferruginous” chocolate, chocolate prepared with iron filings, oxides, and carbonates, were marketed to be beneficial to women, but in actuality were poisonous concoctions. There are many telltale signs of adulterated chocolate. For example, when animal fats such as lard or butter were used instead of cocoa butter, consumers noticed a distinctly “cheesy” taste. The faux cocoa butter also changed the melting point of the end product, such that it did not “melt in the mouth”. Starch could also be detected via adding a few drops of iodine into the dissolved chocolate. A starch-adulterated cacao drink would turn blue in the presence of iodine (“The True History of Chocolate”)


This 1855 graphic in the periodical “Punch” depicts a little girl asking, “If you please, Sir, Mother says, will you let her have a quarter of a pound of your best tea to kill the rats with, and an ounce of chocolate as would get rid of the black beadles.” This suggests the distrust caused by food adulteration ran so deep that consumers regarded the items as toxic and fit to exterminate vermin with.

In the 1850s, a health commission for the analysis of foods put forth by The Lancet, a British medical journal, found that of 70 samples of chocolate, 39 had been colored with red bricks. Peterson’s Magazine in 1891 categorized the adulteration as injurious to the health and simply fraudulent:

  1. Those which are simply fraudulent, but not necessarily injurious to health – the use of some cheap but wholesome ingredient with the pure article for the purpose of underselling and increasing profits
  2. Those which are injurious to health – the use of drugs or chemicals for the purpose of changing the appearance or character of the pure article, as for instance, the admixture of potash, ammonia, and acids with cocoa to give the apparent smoothness and strength to imperfect and inferior preparations

The public concern and general distrust towards the food industry spurred countries to implement regulations regarding the quality of food products. The British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and Adulteration of Food Act of 1972 were two measures directly resulting from the aforementioned The Lancet study. Corporations were also compelled to assert the “purity” of their chocolate in marketing campaigns.


The above image are ads by Snowden’s and Cadbury’s in the 1867 issue of The Lancet. These companies placed emphasis on “pure” chocolate and “guaranteed” that their products were free from adulterants, in an effort to combat consumer concern regarding the safety of consuming chocolates. The damaged reputation of chocolate ironically provided an incredible marketing opportunity for chocolate producers that capitalized on the damage by promoting their superior products.

Since the 19th century, countries have made significant strides in food safety regulation. But the practice of chocolate adulteration is far from extinguished. In 2010, a Times of India article found that chocolates consumed during the celebration of Diwali have become the target of adulteration. Almost ironically, more stringent food laws and regulations has prompted certain producers to be craftier and more sophisticated with their adulteration process.  I believe the root of food adulteration is misalignment of incentives. A more effective system would focus on incentivizing producers to adhere to health standards or remove the profit margin from cheap alternatives.


Works Cited:

Brindle, Laura Pallas, and Bradley Foliart Olson. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. 2009. Print.

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

Squicciarini, Mara P., and Johan Swinnen. The Economics of Chocolate. 2015. Print.

“This Diwali, Chocolate Is the Bitter Story – Times of India.” The Times of India. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

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