Reporter's Notebook: Cracking the chocolate code

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An entire wall of chocolate has taken up residence in my grocery store. I’m not talking about milk chocolate candy bars, but rather high-end gourmet chocolate that can cost $5, $10 even $20 a bar.

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'Chocolate is the new wine'

“Chocolate is the new wine,” chocolatier Pam Williams said. Each bar may list its country of origin, blend of cacao (the seeds from which cocoa powder is derived) and information about the terroir (farming environment and practices). All these factors contribute to the cost of a kind of chocolate.

Dark chocolate’s health benefits

One factor in this rise in chocolate’s popularity is research showing the health benefits of dark chocolate, from lowering blood pressure and fighting inflammation to satisfying your sweet tooth with less sugar.

But $20?

But $20 for a bar of chocolate? Really? Does a $20 bar mean you get a healthier bar? A better-tasting bar? What’s the sweet spot on price where you can get a good bar without breaking the bank?

What do those percentages on the label mean?

A trip to Dandelion Chocolate, an artisanal chocolatemaker in San Francisco, showed all the steps to get chocolate from bean to bar. The aroma in the factory cafe was intoxicating. My first question for Williams: “What do the percentages of cacao listed on bars mean?”

Our chocolate expert (what a job!) explained, “The percentage only tells you how sweet it is. It does not tell you the quality at all.” For example, 70 percent means 70 percent of the bar is cacao, the rest mostly sugar and some binders like lecithin. So a 95 percent cacao bar is pretty bitter; a 70 percent bar is sweeter.

The quality of the beans is not reflected in that percentage. Williams said, “You can make a 70 percent bar from really not-so-good-tasting beans.”

Taste is subjective

To see how much variety exists in our palates and the quality of modern bars, we invited nine self-identified chocolate lovers to test chocolate in a blind taste test.

We broke three bars into pieces. The bars cost $3, $7 and $11.

Some testers identified specific properties of the chocolate: One said a sample was earthy, one liked the silky texture of a sample, and another preferred the chalkiness of a separate sample.

The midrange $7 bar won our taste test

Of our nine testers, two rated the cheapest bar as tasting best, three rated the most expensive bar as best, and four gave the highest rating to the $7 bar.

Williams was not surprised, “The best bar is the one you like best.” She said it’s very personal.

What else makes a bar good?

Despite the subjective nature of chocolate, experts say there are some qualitative factors for picking a good bar.

1. Smell it. It should have a strong chocolaty smell. Some other words to describe chocolate: fruity (raspberry is a common descriptor), earthy, nutty, smoky, buttery.
2. Look at it. The bar should be shiny, not dull, and should not be scraped or scuffed from the production process.
3. Listen. Dark chocolate should be brittle. You should hear a crisp snap when you break it.

Final benefit of dark chocolate: Less sugar

Milk chocolate is made of approximately 20 percent cacao, and the rest can be sugar and binders. As a result, milk chocolate can have five times the amount of sugar that dark chocolate has.

I need only two to three squares of dark chocolate to be sated. It’s so rich that it quickly satisfies my sweet tooth, but I can inhale an entire milk chocolate bar without a second thought.

Also, if chocolate is your habit, think of it this way. If you eat 100 grams of chocolate (roughly two bars) per week for a year, the amount of sugar you will consume will vary widely:

  • Dark chocolate (80 percent cacao) = 673 grams of sugar
  • Candy-bar milk chocolate = 2,902 grams of sugar

That’s an additional 11.5 cups of sugar a year if you choose candy bar milk chocolate over dark chocolate.