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Food and Drink

Vegetable fats, choc horror]: Are cheap candy bars worthy of the name 'chocolate'? Joanna Blythman thinks not

If you are a typical sweet-toothed Briton, the chances are that next weekend you will be indulging in the ritual Easter chocolate orgy. The average Briton, in the course of a year, munches his or her way through the equivalent of 120 chocolate bars, 10 packets of chocolate, 3 1/2 lb of boxed chocolates, 1 1/2 Easter eggs, 3 1/2 cream eggs and 17 1/2 mini- eggs, loving every bit of it.

Other European countries, however, do not all share our tastes. There has long been a disagreement over what 'real' chocolate is, with the French in particular arguing for a much tighter definition.

Vegetable fat is the cause of the dispute. In Britain, Ireland and Denmark, manufacturers had obtained a European 'derogation', allowing them to add up to 5 per cent vegetable fat to their products and still call it chocolate. But, for the past 20 years, the European consensus has been that vegetable fat has no place in chocolate, the only rightful fat being cocoa butter.

This old debate flared again in November, when - under pressure from the confectionery giants Philip Morris, Nestle, Cadbury and Suchard - the European Commission proposed 'harmonising' the definition of chocolate. The idea was to end the ban on vegetable fat in such countries as France, and drop the obligation to declare the proportion of cocoa solids on the bar.

The plan provoked an instant response in France. A small elite club of chocolate enthusiasts - 'Le Club de Croqueurs du Chocolat' - ran an effective campaign against the proposals, denouncing them as a threat to the quality of chocolate. This was backed at industry level by the manufacturer Valrhona, which represents the best of fine chocolate in France, supplying all the top chefs and chocolatiers. As a result, the plan has been put on ice, although discussions over chocolate definitions continue at the EC.

Last month I went to France with Channel 4's Food File programme to investigate why the French were taking such a stand over chocolate. We went to the Valrhona factory at Tain L'Hermitage, just south of Lyons. This was a pilgrimage back to a place and a product I love. I first visited Valrhona seven years ago when, like many Britons, I took Cadbury's Dairy Milk as my main point of chocolate reference, with Black Magic (for eating) and Chocolat Menier (for cooking) representing the ultimate in sophistication.

At Valrhona I learnt for the first time what chocolate should be. Lesson one was about cocoa solids. Valrhona's milk chocolate contains more than typical British 'dark' chocolate, while its dark chocolate contains from 50 to 70 per cent, which is at least twice what we get in Britain and explains why it actually tastes of cocoa.

Lesson two was about the beans. While the standard 'chocolate' bars we eat in Britain are made from readily available, and therefore cheaper, Forastero beans, Valrhona was seeking rarer, more expensive Criollo and Trinitario beans - prized for their superior flavours.

Lesson three was about sugar, which is added sparingly, not by the British sackload.

But it was the actual chocolate, not the theory, that clinched it. I have been a fan ever since. If Valrhona was taking a stand over the EC's proposals, I respected the company enough to want to hear why.

'We are are not in the business of banning candy bars and confectionery,' explained Valrhona's managing director, Jean-Loup Fabre. 'If people like products with vegetable fat, let them buy them. All we are saying is, don't confuse them with real chocolate. The fundamental issue is that the industry shouldn't be allowed to trick the consumer.'

Is this just the French being pedantic? What difference would 5 per cent vegetable fat make, I hear you ask? Quite a lot, is the answer, because the taste is nowhere near as good as that of cocoa butter. Yet there are increasingly strong commercial pressures on manufacturers to start using vegetable oil.

To begin with, the cocoa market is highly speculative, and it is not unknown for prices to rise 30 per cent in a three-month period, which makes pricing very difficult. Vegetable fat, on the other hand, is widely available and far cheaper.

'If you allow vegetable fat in chocolate, the effect will be to drag down standards in the industry as a whole,' Mr Fabre argues. 'Manufacturers who stuck with just cocoa butter would not be able to compete on price, and high-quality chocolate could more or less disappear for the ordinary consumer.'

Everyone the Food File team met in France seemed to appreciate the importance of maintaining high food standards. The results are there to see and taste. The standard-setting of companies such as Valrhona is keeping the industry on its toes. The Swiss giant, Lindt, recently introduced a range of high- cocoa solid chocolate squares, from distinctive regions of the world. It is aimed at the chocolate enthusiast. Even so, it is popular enough to sell in all the leading supermarkets.

Many French towns still have a chocolatier who can sell you the real thing. Although Mars and Twix are everywhere, the selection of high- cocoa chocolates on offer is still impressive. French consumers of all classes have a real choice, and a heightened awareness of what chocolate is all about. I hope they keep up the battle on our behalf.

Joanna Blythman presents 'The French Fight Back' in Food File on Channel 4 at 8.30pm on 30 March.