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.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - major leisure brand

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Partner

    £25000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Partner is required to ...

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003