Buying Good Chocolate
Reading the Label
Shopping for chocolate should be fun. It’s exciting to discover new makers and new bars. If you live in a major city, there is a good chance you can find a specialty store with a good selection of bars and expert staff eager to help you shop. Some high-end grocery chains have expanded their chocolate selections to include local and imported craft chocolate. Those who live off the beaten path might have to order chocolate online. So where do you start?
Learning to read chocolate bar labels can help you find good quality bars. The diagrams below will show you what to look for and what it can tell you about the bar. Please note that package design layout differs from bar to bar so check both sides if you are looking for specific information.
Many chocolate makers enter competitions where their bars are judged by panels of tasting experts. Putting the award seal on the label is a good marketing tool, but it doesn’t guarantee you will like the bar. Take this information with a grain of salt.
2. Company Name
We recommend researching chocolate makers before you start shopping for chocolate. Make a list of bars you are interested in trying based on reviews you have read or websites you have visited. Some of the best chocolate comes from small makers with names you won’t recognize until you’ve done a little research.
3. Bean Type
Some bars will list the bean type, especially if they are using a high-quality bean such as Criollo. This does not guarantee quality.
The area where the plantation resides or the plantation name itself. Some cultivar varieties have the same name as the plantation they’re from.
5. Country of Origin
Typically, single-origin bars are labelled to tell you where the beans were grown. Some bars will even tell you the specific estate.
This represents the amount of ingredients that come from the cocoa bean by weight. This includes cocoa butter, even if it is additionally added. In most cases the higher the percentage the less sugar the chocolate has. Two bars of the same percentage can be wildly different depending on the ratio of fat to solids to sugars in the bar.
7. Chocolate Type
Although the percentage should give you a good idea of the type of chocolate, some companies also explain further with terms such as dark, white, milk, blonde or dark-milk. If it is a flavoured bar, you will also find details about the inclusions or added flavours.
8. Batch Number
Some small makers will print the batch number. This is helpful to the chocolate maker because they can monitor the success of changing variables. It can also help tasters if they are comparing a bar from one year to another.
This shows you how much chocolate you are getting. When you are comparing price, you want to make sure you compare the sizes.
10. Tasting Notes
Some makers will tell you tasting notes to help you with your purchasing decision. Don’t expect to taste the exact same flavours. Use these as a loose guide and try to ignore the notes when you are doing your own tasting. However it’s interesting to see afterwards if you came to the same conclusions.
You want to check this area for anything weird like vegetable oil or artificial flavourings. The ingredient list should be short unless you are buying flavoured/inclusion bars. When buying dark chocolate, the first ingredient should be cocoa, labelled as cocoa beans, cocoa nibs, cocoa liquor, cocoa solids or cocoa mass. Note that many makers will use “cacao” in place of “cocoa”). Additional ingredients might include sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin and vanilla. If you are buying milk chocolate, you will also find milk solids or milk powder. White chocolate won’t have any cocoa solids, but you will find cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids. There is a growing niche of vegan or low-glycemic chocolate options including specialty ingredients such as coconut milk powder, stevia, coconut sugar or lucuma.
12. Nutrition Information
Some bars will have nutrition information on the label. This information usually represents a single serving, not the whole bar.
13. Maker Notes
You might find a mission statement or production details written on the bar. For instance, a maker might tell you that she creates “bean-to-bar chocolate from beans she has sourced straight from the growers in Ecuador”. Notes like this are typically a good sign.
Cocoa production has a very serious dark side that includes child labour, unsafe work conditions, unfair pay for farmers and environmental concerns.There are a variety of international organizations working to improve the conditions for farmers, their families and the environment. It is important that chocolate makers take responsibility by sourcing ethical beans. Consumers can choose to support chocolate makers who care about these issues. Some chocolate bars will have certification logos to signify that it is fair-trade or organic. The certification process can be costly and difficult for small farmers and small makers to attain. That means there are many great, ethical bars on the market without certification logos. Don’t rule out a bar because it lacks certification.
15. Expiry Date
Sadly chocolate doesn’t last forever. Check the expiration date if one is listed. If not feel free to ask the retailer if the chocolate is new to the shop.Some bars are just fine past the expiration date, but it’s a good idea to check for dates that are way off. If the chocolate is stored in a window or the store feels particularly hot it might be best not to risk it as the bar might be bloomed. Look for any other signs that the bar may have been stored incorrectly. If the bar seems broken, or the label damaged, see if there’s another one available. Unfortunately you can’t always know what’s inside, and most retailers are not wholly responsible for the way the chocolate was handled before it got to them, but you can mitigate many problems by being observant.
16. Country of Manufacture
This is where the chocolate making factory is located. Typically, this will be a different location than the Country of Origin. In the future, we hope to see more bars manufactured in origin countries.
That’s all there is to it. If you’re buying chocolate at a reputable source don’t be afraid to ask the staff about what they recommend and what they think you might enjoy.