Chocolate Chutzpah

Americans love their chocolate. So it’s no surprise that one of the most-read pages currently on the New York Times’ website is Monday’s op-ed decrying a proposal to change federal regulations on what can be legally labeled “chocolate.”

Under Food and Drug Administration regulations, “chocolate” must contain crushed cacao beans and may contain a short list of other ingredients, including spices, nuts, sweeteners, and dairy products. Confections that do not comply with those regulations cannot carry the “chocolate” label.

Some candymakers have petitioned the FDA to expand the list of allowable additives to include various fats. If that happens, chocolatiers could substitute cheaper vegetable oils for expensive cocoa butter — the fat in cacao beans that provides chocolate’s melt-in-your-mouth texture. By substituting away from cocoa butter, confectioners would lower their production costs,  which would lead to greater profit margins or, if the candymakers compete on price, lower chocolate’s price to consumers.

To be clear, chocolatiers can already make this substitution, but the resulting product cannot legally be called “chocolate.” A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but “chocolate-like candy” apparently doesn’t sell as well as “chocolate.”

That brings us to the NYT op-ed, penned by Mort Rosenblum. He laments:

The proposal would widen the gap between good and awful. Industrial food companies could sell their waxy [confections] for less. But purveyors of the real thing have no corners to cut. While discerning chocoholics will fork over whatever it takes, those who can’t pay will never know chocolate.

As a chocophile, I sympathize with Rosenblum’s opinion of the would-be chocolates. But his lament is difficult to square with chocolate’s history, its current market trend, and basic economics.

When edible chocolate first appeared in the mid-19th century, the high price of cacao made it an endulgence for only the wealthy. Fortunately, the confection became more affordable a few decades later when chocolate makers started mixing in cheaper additives. The most important of those was milk, first popularized by the Swiss entrepreneur Daniel Peter (with help from a powdered milk maker named Henri Nestlé). In the United States, Milton Hershey experimented with the same idea, resulting in his affordable and popular ”great American chocolate bar.” Some Rosenblum predecessor likely complained that the added milk and sugar meant that consumers “will never know chocolate,” but it’s difficult to see Peter’s and Hershey’s creations as anything but a benefit to the consumer.

Nor did milk chocolate lead consumers to turn away from “real” chocolate. Until Monday’s NYT op-ed, recent news coverage on the chocolate industry has trumpeted the strong market trend toward premium chocolate. With plenty of Hershey’s, Whitman’s, and Russell Stover’s on the market, Americans nonetheless are buying more See’s, Godiva, and Lindt’s, and are searching for chocolate bars with higher and higher cacao content. And the large chocolate manufacturers are responding to the demand for premium chocolate.

From an economic perspective, this makes perfect sense. Consumers shift from a product to its substitute because they find the substitute preferable. In the case of the would-be chocolates, consumers would shift away from “real” chocolates because they prefer either the price or the taste of the new confections. Rosenblum makes clear his opinion that “real” chocolate is far better tasting, so only consumers with a strong concern about price would make the switch. Those consumers would not fail to “know chocolate” — they just would be unwilling to pay its price. Meanwhile, people who do prefer “real” chocolate — people who happily pay chocolate’s current price — will go on paying that price to enjoy the food of the gods.

A concern that Rosenblum’s op-ed could have raised is that consumers may be misled as to the nature of the candy bar they are purchasing if the “chocolate” regulation is amended as proposed. But even that concern seems hollow. As noted above, premium chocolates are currently en vogue, and the chocolate bars in the checkout lines at my Trader Joe’s boldly advertise their cacao content (some topping 85%). If the federal government were to change the chocolate regulations, quality chocolatiers would quickly respond with labels telling consumers that their chocolates contain no “foreign fats.”

Rosenblum’s op-ed is a fun and informative read, but the alarm it raises is, well, hard to swallow.

And now, I think I’ll head across the street to the CVS and grab a Ritter Sport bar.