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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
News
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
people
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Sport
footballAnd Liverpool are happy despite drawing European champions
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
fashion

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone