All vegan chocolate is dark, but is all dark chocolate vegan? And if not, does Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate qualify as vegan-friendly? That’s what we’ll be looking at in today’s article.
Is it vegan? Hershey’s dark chocolate is not vegan-friendly due to the presence of milk and dairy derivatives (milkfat, solids, etc). While consensus around the vegan status of some food products can vary, Hershey’s dark chocolate is considered non-vegan by all standards.
Here we’ll go over the various reasons why Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate is considered non-vegan, and then analyze the vegan status of other dark chocolate varieties put out by the brand. Then we’ll look at any alternatives on the market that might be suitable for 100% plant-based eaters.
If you’re interested in Hershey’s Special Dark, you may also be interested in the article on the vegan status of Hershey’s Kisses, another highly popular chocolate candy.
Why Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Is Non-Vegan
Without “milk” in the name, it’s not obvious that the product would be non-vegan.
But, according to the label, Hershey’s Special Dark contains sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, milkfat, cocoa processed with alkali, lecithin, natural flavor, and milk.1
As the name implies, the chocolate has a darker appearance making it difficult to distinguish from certified vegan dark chocolate bars. Obviously, a lighter appearance would be considered a red flag because milk chocolate is lighter in color—the milk products displace cocoa solids.
I think the main tipoff is the texture. If someone offers you a piece of dark chocolate and you’re not sure whether it’s vegan, you may want to check to see how brittle it is.
With milk chocolate and some forms of dark chocolate (the kind having a lower percentage of cocoa), the solid chocolate is mixed with milk, milkfat, or milk proteins.2
The proteins and saturated fat found in milk displace cocoa butter which softens the texture. Cocoa butter is a rare form of plant-based saturated fat and it has a particularly brittle texture to it. When it’s replaced with milkfat, you get a softer product.
While most know that milk chocolate contains milk, fewer consumers are aware that dark chocolate often contains the same milk derivatives, but in smaller amounts.
While milk chocolate is easy to identify as non-vegan, dark chocolate is a bit trickier, because there don’t seem to be any FDA guidelines that regulate the presence of milk products in chocolate marketed as dark.
For example, US regulations stipulate that milk chocolate must have a 10% concentration of chocolate liquor, at least 3.39% by weight of milkfat, and no less than 12% total milk solids.3
Similarly, the EU regulations specify that anything marketed as milk chocolate contains a minimum of 20-25% cocoa solids.4
No such regulations exist for dark chocolate—at least, none that I’ve been able to find.
Check the label when possible, and if you don’t have access to the nutrition panel for a certain product, look for a dark color and brittle texture.
Are Dark Chocolate Kisses Vegan? What About Hershey’s Special Dark Nuggets?
Just because one version of a product is non-vegan, doesn’t mean all variations will have the same vegan status—formulations can differ from product to product.
Unfortunately, Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Kisses are non-vegan. They contain sugar, chocolate, milkfat, cocoa butter, lecithin, cocoa processed with alkali, milk, and natural flavors.5
We run into the same problem with the dark chocolate variety of Hershey’s Nuggets. These contain sugar, chocolate, milkfat, cocoa butter, cocoa processed w/alkali, lecithin, natural flavor, and milk.6
Above it was mentioned that milk products are common in dark chocolate, but in smaller amounts compared to milk chocolate.
This is because milk provides a lot of useful properties in food products, especially sweets and desserts. It contributes to taste and provides a smooth mouthfeel to chocolate which a lot of folks prefer to the brittle texture imparted by cocoa butter.
Vegan Alternatives to Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate
The best rule of thumb: look for specialty boutique dark chocolate brands like Green & Black’s Organic Dark Chocolate—usually around 70% cocoa. These products are typically marketed as natural, and are found abundantly in stores like Whole Foods Market, but can also be found in Walmart.
Unfortunately, no vegan chocolate will be able to accurately replace the signature texture of Hershey’s chocolate—dark variety, milk chocolate, or otherwise.
Vegan chocolate is great, and many people actually prefer the bitter, darker, more brittle chocolate to the smooth, creamy Hershey’s chocolate. But, if you’re someone looking to duplicate the original Special Dark, I think you’ll find that most products fall short.
The good news is that there are countless vegan-friendly chocolate products on the market, so there are plenty to choose from. For this reason, it shouldn’t be long before you find a product that comes close.
The reason there are so many options probably comes down to the fact that a lot of generic dark chocolate qualifies as vegan because many manufacturers choose to forego milk derivatives. These are considered “accidentally” vegan.
Remember, there are no regulations that require milk to be included in a chocolate product not marketed as milk chocolate.
Ingredients to Look for
Cocoa solids is just another name for cocoa powder. After the beans are ground and defatted, you get a rich bitter product that contains all of the natural compounds that give chocolate its signature taste.
This is where the caffeine, theobromine (the ingredient toxic to dogs), and other stimulants come from.7
The ingredient can also be listed as cacao because the two terms are used interchangeably, with cacao being commonly used on labels for designer dark chocolate.
The term cacao is often used to refer to cocoa beans that are less processed, but no regulation exists to govern the use of the term.8
The vegan-friendly saturated fat source that’s naturally present in cocoa beans. Most of the flavor comes from the solids, which is why cocoa butter has only a mild chocolaty taste and is used to make white chocolate.
These compounds are often referred to as emulsifiers. You’ll usually find these on labels for chocolate candy. Emulsifiers are used to help water and fat mix.9
In chocolate, they serve as surfactants because they help lower the surface tension and viscosity. So you know, if something has a low viscosity, it flows (pours out) faster which makes it easier to work with.10,11
In chocolate, lecithin tends to be used which is usually considered vegan-friendly. Lecithin is typically derived from soy or sunflower, though the compound is present in eggs.
That about wraps it up. Vegan-friendly chocolate is not completely limited to specialty (read: expensive) brands. In fact, I once ate a generic dark chocolate bar put out by a dollar store brand that was free of animal products.
Scan the label and look for milk, milkfat, milk solids, and dairy proteins like whey and casein.
Thanks for reading.
- Smart Label Nutrition Data. HERSHEY’S SPECIAL DARK Mildly Sweet Chocolate Bar. https://smartlabel.hersheys.com/00034000002450-0005
- Types of Chocolate. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Types_of_chocolate
- CFR – Code Of Federal Regulations Title 21. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?CFRPart=163
- Lex Access To European Union Law. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX%3A32000L0036
- Smart Label Nutrition Data, Hershey’s Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate Kisses. https://smartlabel.hersheys.com/00034000121809-0010#ingredients
- Smart Label Nutrition Data, HERSHEY’S NUGGETS Special Dark Chocolates. https://smartlabel.hersheys.com/00034000016563-0010#ingredients
- Fiona Finlay and Simon Guiton. Chocolate Poisoning. BMJ. 2005 Sep 17; 331(7517): 633. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1215566/
- Cacao vs Cocoa: What’s the Difference? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/cacao-vs-cocoa
- Anton M, and G Gandemer. Composition, solubility, and emulsifying properties of granules and plasma of egg yolk. Journal of Food Science 62(3):484–487, 1997.
- Soy Lecithin In Chocolate: Why Is It So Controversial? – https://www.thechocolatejournalist.com/blog/soy-lecithin-chocolate
- Colbert LB. Lecithins tailored to your emulsification needs. Cereal Foods World 43(9):686–688, 1998.