Chocolate without ingredients that come from animals is vegan.
It comes from the cacao beans taken from inside the pod which are actually fruits harvested from the cacao tree, the Theobroma cacao.
So yes, unadulterated and unmixed chocolate is vegan!
General description of cocoa
Cacao pods are actually the fruit ranging in color from yellow to orange to purple and harvested from the cacao tree. They are oblong in shape ranging from four to twelve inches long and contain between 20-40 seeds wrapped in a juicy sour-sweet pulp. The seeds rattle inside the pod when it is already ripe. These seeds are the ones used in making chocolate and cocoa.
One pound of cocoa beans can be gleaned from about 7 to 14 pods, depending upon the size.
The cacao tree is an evergreen plant that has a smooth and brownish gray bark with dark-green leaves that are as large as an outstretched human hand. It grows best under the shade of other trees such as bananas and coconut, protected from the harshness of sun and wind.
There are four main types of cacao trees, namely:
- Nacional and Criollo which are mainly grown in Central and South America. They are difficult to grow and with lower yields but both have superb flavor and aroma.
- Forastero, in contrast, grows faster and has higher yields. It is extensively grown worldwide.
- The Trinitario, which is a hybrid variety, is a cross between the two other types above, with the superb flavor and aroma of the Criollo but with the high-yield and fast-grow properties of the Forastero.
Rainfall, soil temperature and sunshine are the main growing conditions that affect harvest and greatly influence the bean’s flavor. Although the cacao tree bears fruit all year round, it is ideal to harvest the pods after the rainy season and for about three months.
Cacao pods are harvested when ripe and are cut open to allow the beans to ferment so that they may easily separate from the shells. They are then dried in the sun and prepared to be sold in container sacks.
The processor dry, roast and grind the seeds to powder for the many forms and uses that the market needs, mainly for culinary applications such as baking, drinking, making chocolate bars and other well-known dishes. An unusual but now popular use of chocolate is for cosmetics because of its emollient properties.
To preserve its full-bodied aroma and taste, cacao must be stored in a cool and dry place.
What, really, is chocolate?
Chocolate is a food product that results from drying, fermenting, roasting and grinding cacao beans/seeds that come from the cacao tree. It may come in three forms — liquid, paste or solid — which can be consumed on its own or as a flavoring for other foods.
The cacao seeds taste intensely bitter and have to be fermented for the aromatic flavor to come out. The next steps are drying, cleaning and roasting. The bean shells are then removed to produce cocoa nibs which, in turn, become the cocoa mass after grinding. The cocoa mass is the rough and unadulterated form and the mother of the flavorful chocolate we know today.
Heating the cocoa mass liquefies it and becomes chocolate liquor. The chocolate liquor may also be cooled to be processed and broken down into its two major components, cocoa butter and cocoa solids.
Bitter chocolate, which is used for baking, is composed of both cocoa butter and cocoa solids in varying amounts. Adding sugar and vegetable oils to bitter chocolate yields sweet chocolate of the kind that is considerably consumed today.
Powdered baking cocoa is mostly cocoa solids and therefore has more fiber than if it contained more cocoa butter. Although intense and full-flavored, it is also somewhat acidic. It can be processed with alkali, usually potassium carbonate, to neutralize its acidity and produce what is known as dutch cocoa. The process which was invented by a Dutchman in 1828 (hence the name dutch cocoa) darkens the cocoa’s color, and at the same time, mellows and smoothens the cocoa flavor.
Many modern-day chocolate makers add condensed or powdered milk to sweet chocolate to produce milk chocolate, a common favorite especially among kids. In contrast, white chocolate does not contain cocoa solids but instead, has cocoa butter, milk and sugar.
A bit of history
The cacao plant has been around since circa 19th to 11th Century BCE, principally by the Olmecs and most of the Mesoamerican people, notably the Mayans and the Aztecs. They were the first to make and drink chocolate beverages. Other forms of chocolate (paste and solids) were also consumed to a limited extent.
It was Linnaeus who named cacaoTheobroma, which literally means “food of the gods”. Originating from the lowlands of South America, it spread to Central America.
Historical spread of cacao worldwide
- 16th century – cacao beans were introduced to the Spanish as they colonized then “unknown” lands.
- 1819 – Switzerland made the first chocolate bar.
- Early 17th century – cacao trees were first introduced to Africa by the Portuguese.
An estimate of 1.5 million farms are now growing cacao trees in West Africa. Although cacao is now produced in many countries within 15 degrees on either side of the equator (sometimes called the “cocoa belt”), the top producing countries remain to be Brazil, Cameroon, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea.
Common uses and packaging of chocolate
One of the most popular food and flavoring agents, chocolate is used in a variety of ways and come in many shapes and forms, including but not limited to the following:
Desserts – cakes, chocolate brownies, chocolate chip cookies, mousse, pudding, etc.
Fillings and coatings for candies and sweets.
Snacks – solid chocolate bars or other foodstuff and ingredients coated/filled with chocolate.
Gifts – popular especially on certain holidays such as Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Valentine’s Day, etc., and are molded into different shapes such as coins, eggs, hearts, stars, etc. for attractiveness and variety.
Beverage – hot or chocolate drink, milk chocolate and in certain alcoholic beverages like creme de cacao.
As an ingredient in cosmetics due to its soothing properties.
Chemical components and nutritional value of cacao
Caffeine – Stimulates the central nervous system, heart and muscles; and increases urine flow.
Fatty matter (40-50%) – Important energy storage depot, offering insulation and protection and a significant role in regulating and signaling body health changes.
Fiber – Helps to regulate the body’s use of sugars, blood sugar levels and keep hunger in check.
Nitrogen – Makes proteins in blood, hair, muscles, nails, skin and DNA.
Polyphenols – Keep blood vessels healthy and flexible thereby promoting good circulation and help manage blood pressure levels. Polyphenols have been proven to help reduce chronic inflammation which is one of the risk factors of heart disease. They also help in reducing and controlling blood sugar levels.
Tannins – Acceleration of the blood clotting process, lowering blood pressure, decreasing the lipid levels in the blood serum and reduction of liver “tissue death” are among their chief bodily functions.
Theobromine – An alkaloid like caffeine but lesser in effect to the nervous system.
Ethical considerations surrounding chocolate access and consumption
As with coffee, there is a responsibility that goes with our enjoyment of chocolate bars, drinks and all other products that use chocolate.
You might want to read: Is Coffee Vegan?
About two million children are involved in cacao farming in West Africa alone. Child slavery for farm labor is still rampant and, along with trafficking, was a major concern since 2018. There have been international efforts to improve conditions for children but continue to fail because of persistent poverty and lack of educational facilities such as schools. Burgeoning global demand for cacao results in more intensive cacao production that requires more farm hands that leads to the continued exploitation of cheap child labor.
World Vision International, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid, development, and advocacy organization is at the forefront and actively participating in the betterment of the conditions of impoverished sectors of society. Children are most particularly vulnerable and almost always fall victims (sometimes, even willingly) to abuse and exploitation.
Their No Child For Sale Campaign aims to diminish, if not actually eradicate, the number of children whose futures become uncertain or totally lost because they are forced to work even in dangerous jobs, especially when there seems to be no other option.
One of the means for the No Child For Sale Campaign to achieve their goals and mission is to push for the parallel requirement for Fair Trade accreditation. This assures ethical standards in terms of labor practices and wage rates for farm hands through small farmers’ and workers’ associations and cooperatives. This, in turn, effectively reduces poverty in the coffee and cacao farming sector.
There are chocolate brands advertised to be products of the highest quality organic produce. Some of them are qualified to be vegan as they are pure and unadulterated.
What makes chocolate non-vegan?
We do not have a simple answer to this question. As mentioned above, veganism is not a one-face affair. There are some types of vegan who do not agree with some other vegans in terms of vegan diet and nutrition.
To avoid any room for debates, let us carefully consider characteristics that can make chocolates non-vegan.
- Chocolate with dairy fillings or mixed into the chocolate product.
- Milk is the primary ingredient that makes chocolate non-vegan. Even milk fat or anything that hints of a non-vegan milk should be avoided. Milk from almond, cashew, coconut, hemp, oat and rice are some non-dairy milk that may be used for chocolate to stay vegan.
- Chocolate with caramel, peanut butter, toffee or truffle usually have some dairy in it. It is wise to carefully read the ingredient list on the label to make sure or just avoid this kind of chocolate altogether.
What to look for to make sure your chocolate is vegan
It is important to note here, though, that there are other faces of veganism. The environmental vegan does not only look at the actual contents of the vegan diet itself but also includes sound environmental impact for sustainability. There is also the ethical vegan who morally and politically advocates against commercial and industrial uses of animals such as for meat commercial production, farmwork and the like.
Let us train our focus to the chocolate itself and identify the characteristics that say it is a vegan foodstuff. Look for the following features:
Chocolates with minimal amounts of ingredients. The purer the chocolate, the surer you are that it is indeed vegan.
Opt for high quality dark chocolate. The dark brown color serves as an assurance that there is more chocolate in it. If there is a percentage mark on the label, it should not fall below 50%.
If you kind of dislike dark chocolate, read the ingredients list and make sure that there is no milk or any other dairy product derivatives in it. Almonds, dried fruits or mint do not make your chocolate non-vegan.
So, can vegans drink or eat chocolate?
Indeed, vegans can drink and/or eat chocolate. Just remember to read the ingredient list on the label.
Get back to reading this article for assurance that your chocolate is indeed vegan and does not contain coatings, fillings or ingredients that are non-vegan.