By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007
Rarely do documents making their way through federal agencies cause chocolate lovers to totally melt down. Then came Appendix C.
Accompanying a 35-page petition signed by a diverse set of culinary groups -- juice producers, meat canners and the chocolate lobby -- the appendix charts proposed changes to food standard definitions set by the Food and Drug Administration, including this one: "use a vegetable fat in place of another vegetable fat named in the standard (e.g., cacao fat)."
Chocolate lovers read that as a direct assault on their palates. That's because the current FDA standard for chocolate says it must contain cacao fat -- a.k.a. cocoa butter -- and this proposal would make it possible to call something chocolate even if it had vegetable oil instead of that defining ingredient. Whoppers malted milk balls, for instance, do not have cocoa butter.
Chocolate purists, of which there are apparently many, have undertaken a grassroots letter-writing campaign to the FDA to inform the agency that such a change to the standards is just not okay with them. More than 225 comments to the petition have been processed so far by the agency, and chocolate bloggers are pressing for more. In the annals of bureaucratic Washington battles, this is a sweet one.
"If this puts a smile on people's faces even though it's a serious matter, that's what chocolate is meant to do," said California chocolate maker and traditionalist Gary Guittard, whose Web site, http://DontMessWithOurChocolate.com, has led the counterassault.
Other proposals in the petition -- e.g., to market cartoon character-shaped pasta as macaroni -- have not caused as much heartburn. That's because chocolate isn't just food. It symbolizes passion, and for its lovers, it borders on religion. They buy chocolate based on cacao content -- some desire 70 percent, others will go higher. The most demanding examine labels to make sure it is from one region, not a blend, focusing on production methods much the same way that coffee lovers home in on where beans are grown. Even mass chocolate producers are trying to tap into this spirit. There's now a Limited Edition Dark Snickers bar.
The industry has also been touting chocolate's health benefits -- it contains flavonoids, which may benefit the heart and arteries; cocoa butter doesn't raise cholesterol levels; and chocolate doesn't contain trans fats. Mars has even launched a division called Mars Nutrition for Health & Well-Being, which markets chocolate products with explicit health claims.
Guittard, whose family has been making chocolate since 1868, said some big chocolate manufacturers favor the proposed change in regulations because they want to keep prices down on key ingredients by using less expensive vegetable fat, which can contain trans fats, instead of cocoa butter. That scares him. Cybele May, a playwright, whale-watching enthusiast and Web editor in California, has been encouraging people to write the FDA with posts on her blog at http://candyblog.net. "Suddenly, we are worried that the chocolate bar isn't the same anymore and we don't know why," May said.
If the change is approved, products would still need to contain chocolate liquor, the ground-up center of the cocoa bean. But a confection such as PayDay Chocolatey Avalanche -- which doesn't contain cocoa butter -- would be able to call itself PayDay Chocolate Avalanche. It seems like a small distinction, but to people like Guittard and May, it is not.
An FDA spokeswoman said if -- stressing, if -- the agency decides to consider changing the standards as requested in the petition, the process would take several years.
For their part, chocolate makers aren't saying much. Kirk Saville, a Hershey's spokesman, said it was "premature to speculate on any changes before the process is complete." He was more expansive in speaking to the Harrisburg Patriot-News, in the company's back yard, saying, "There are high-quality oils available which are equal to or better than cocoa butter in taste, nutrition, texture and function, and are preferred by consumers."
Officials from the Chocolate Manufacturers Association declined an interview request. In a statement, the association said now is an appropriate time to update standards of identity for all foods and added, "We want to emphasize that by co-signing the food industry petition, CMA has not endorsed any particular changes to the standards of identity for chocolate products."
From the department of cooler heads comes Nick Malgieri, the director of the baking program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York.
"I think a lot of people don't realize that this would be optional," Malgieri said. "No one is going to force a high-class chocolate maker to add vegetable fat to chocolate." Asked if fine chocolate would just melt away, he said, "Absolutely not."