So yes, vegans can eat chocolate, hurrah! Your best bet when out in the wild will be the dark variety (always read the label), however raw chocolate is becoming more readily available as well as plant-based alternatives to dairy chocolate.
Chocolate has not always been produced in bars and sold by shops. The cocoa bean originates from the South American rain forests. Historically Malayans consumed chocolate by way of a drink – the nib was ground down into a powder and mixed with spices. After the Aztecs discovered the cocoa bean they valued it so much that it was used as their trading currency (we hear that!). Drinking chocolate was brought into Europe in the 1600s by the Spanish, rather than drink it with spices, sugar was added to sweeten it up. It was hugely popular but expensive to import, so only royalty and the wealthy could afford to buy it. The “Dutch process” allowed the first chocolate bars to be developed and mass production did not occur until after the industrial revolution.
The cocoa tree grows within 20 degrees of the equator to ensure that it has plentiful rainfall and rich, well-drained soil. The tree grows in the rainforest under the canopy, reaching up for the sunshine when it is ready and after 5 years it starts to bear fruit. These pods are cut down from the tree, the cocoa bean and the pulp are scooped out. The beans ferment in the pulp, after which they are cleaned and roasted. The cocoa shell can then be opened to extract the nib which will be ground into a powder or split into cocoa mass and cocoa butter.
The flavour of chocolate varies depending upon the type of bean; criollo, forastero and trinitario, the length of time that the bean is roasted for (this creates the chocolate flavour) and the additional ingredients the chocolate manufacturer adds. The higher the level of cocoa mass and cocoa butter in chocolate the stronger the flavour of chocolate. Once all the ingredients are added to the chocolate mixture it goes through a conching process to refine and smooth out the mixture. The final stage is tempering – this involves heating the mixture so the best type of chocolate crystals form to ensure a smooth finish. The most expensive chocolate you can buy should contain the criollo bean which grows in central America.
RAINFOREST Although it originates from South America two thirds of the worlds chocolate now comes from West Africa. Worldwide it is thought that 50 million people are dependent on cocoa income. The natural rain forest production does not supply enough cocoa beans to meet worldwide demand so plantations have been established in the rain forest. This has resulted in deforestation of the rain forest. Rather than wait for the tree to produce pods and earn any income from the trees fruits, the farmers grow the trees in direct sunlight and feed them with fertilisers to grow the pods within 2-3 years. This affects both the quality of the cocoa bean (it will not be organic), and the life of the tree which is not normally much longer than 5 years. There are projects going on to encourage farmers to use a more sustainable approach. By following the natural way the cocoa tree grows under a canopy, the farmers can then also grow nut and banana trees. This reduces the need for fertilisers; insects in the mulch under the tree do this job, and also provides the farmer with additional income.
Sadly the heart-breaking reality of most chocolate produced is that the cocoa will have been farmed with the use of child slave labour. Whilst there have been attempts to introduce legislation (since 2001) to address the issue of child labour and trafficking of children, the industry has succeeded in preventing attempts to eliminate child labour in the supply chain.
This is a barest of summaries so we really do urge you to read further about the plight of some 2 million children, the majority of whom reside in West Africa working in terrible and dangerous conditions, with no pay to make something they will never taste.
Be savvy with your chocolate choices and look for brands that support their cacao suppliers by ensuring:
Ths chocolate is slave free
The cocoa plantation owners earn enough for an adequate standard of living
The plantation is environmentally sustainable
Fortunately for us vegans the main culprits/big brands are not vegan but if you are in doubt email the company you are interested in to find out what their policy on child labour is. Food Empowerment Project also have an app you can download that rates chocolate brands based on where the cacao is sourced, as the worst forms of child labour are in Western Africa.
Vegan Chocolate Options
Raw chocolate can be bought in bars from health shops or you can learn to make your own. The cocoa bean can be bought as nibs, powder or butter. By mixing the powder with a raw natural sugar such as agave you can make a basic raw chocolate.
Dark chocolate should contain over 70% of chocolate mass and is produced by many chocolate manufacturers but alas, it is not all vegan, so altogether now – ‘always read the label’. Some bars are not marked vegan when they are produced on a production line with milk. Here are a few brands to look out for which you should find in most large supermarkets (also check their own brand/free from) or on the high street:
Vegan drinking chocolate is out there too, maybe even in your local supermarket. Check the label to make sure it is suitable for vegans. You can also get vegan marshmallows to pimp it up!