This is a good question and one I get from time to time. There are numerous chocolate variations out there, and a lot of folks want to know what makes vegan chocolate so special. Also, some people just want to know if the production of vegan chocolate requires any processing that would be deemed unhealthy.
What is in vegan chocolate? Vegan chocolate is usually made of cocoa solids (cocoa or cacao powder), cocoa butter, sugar, and a surfactant (e.g. soy lecithin). It’s important to know that while vegan chocolate is always dark (or semi-sweet), dark chocolate isn’t always vegan, due to the possible presence of milk derivatives.
What we’ll do here is go over each of these ingredients, what they are, their functions, and why they’re considered vegan.
Ingredients in Vegan Chocolate
When you see cocoa solids on a food label, it just means ground cocoa beans that have been defatted. When you extract the cocoa butter, you get cocoa or cacao powder. It’s that simple.
This is where all of the flavor comes from. If you’ve ever had cocoa butter, you probably noticed that it’s fairly tasteless.
Cocoa solids contain all of the compounds that give chocolate its characteristic flavor. It also contains the caffeine and theobromine—the stimulant that dogs can’t metabolize and makes chocolate poisonous for our K9 friends.1
I say cocoa or cacao because both terms can be used to describe the same substance. Cacao seems to used a bit more to refer to cocoa beans that have undergone less processing, but the two terms are used interchangeably and inconsistently, as there aren’t any regulations governing their use.2
Cocoa butter is a rare source of saturated fat in the plant kingdom. It’s the fat that’s found naturally in cocoa beans. It’s sort of an off-white color and semi-translucent.
Again, the cocoa solids are where all the taste comes from, as cocoa butter doesn’t have much of a flavor profile. Cocoa butter is the main substance used to make white chocolate, which is why there’s a faint chocolaty taste to the confection.
White chocolate makes use of milk fat and proteins, which adds flavor and improves mouthfeel.3-5
In fact, milk chocolate—the type of chocolate that’s always considered non-vegan—gets its name from the fact that it uses quite a bit of milk fat. The saturated fatty acids (SFAs) in milk have a much smoother mouthfeel compared to the SFAs in cocoa butter.
If you’ve ever handled cocoa butter, you probably noticed that it tends to be on the brittle side. That’s not to say that it’s undesirable. After all, many people prefer the texture of dark chocolate.
The main difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate is that the former retains the cocoa butter, and foregoes most (if not all) of the milkfat.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that dark chocolate isn’t synonymous with vegan chocolate because a lot of dark chocolate—especially the kind with a lower % (think Hershey’s special dark)—still makes use of dairy derivatives.
Again, vegan chocolate is always dark or semi-sweet, but dark chocolate isn’t always vegan, due to the presence of dairy additives.
For example, Hershey’s special dark chocolate contains sugar, chocolate, milk fat, cocoa butter, cocoa processed w/alkali, soy lecithin, natural flavor, and milk.6
Surfactants and Emulsifiers
These are not always present in vegan chocolate.
Emulsifiers help ingredients stay nice and mixed by attracting both water and fat molecules.7
These compounds also serve as surfactants, which is why they’re used in chocolate.
Some emulsifiers can spell trouble for extra prudent vegans. For example, mono- and diglycerides, commonly used in baked goods, are produced by reacting glycerol and triglycerides, both of which can be sourced from both plants and animals.8-10
Just so you know, triglycerides inhabit our fat cells. They’re made up of glycerol and fatty acids. Mono- and diglycerides have just one and two fatty acids (respectively) bound to a glycerol backbone, instead of three fatty acids as in triglycerides.11
These are usually considered suitable for vegans, but particularly strict vegans sometimes prefer to avoid them.
Luckily for extra prudent vegans, chocolate manufacturers tend to use emulsifiers like soy and sunflower lecithin—not mono- and diglycerides (though they can be used).
Interestingly, they’re used for their surfactant properties—not their ability to mix water and oil.12
After all, chocolate doesn’t contain water. Surfactants are used to reduce the surface tension of liquids, allowing them to spread out faster.13
So, it lowers the viscosity of substances—if something has a low viscosity, it pours faster and is easy to work with (stir, etc.).
So, chocolate manufacturers typically use soy or sunflower lecithin because they make chocolate easy to work with.
Yes, lecithin can be sourced from egg yolks, but that’s almost unheard of these days when it comes to chocolate. I’ve read countless labels, and if there are any emulsifiers at all, it’s always soy or sunflower lecithin.
That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.
- 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
- “Title 21 Chapter I Subchapter B Part 163 of the Code of Federal Regulations”. United States Government Publishing Office. 24 February 2017. https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=64ec925fd70dcc3f30f6c45d41315509&mc=true&node=pt21.2.163&rgn=div5#se21.2.163_1124
- Smith DM, and AJ Rose. Gel properties of whey protein concentrates as influenced by ionized calcium. Journal of Food Science 59(5):1115–1118, 1994.
- Francis LL, et al. Serving temperature effects on milk flavor, milk aftertaste, and volatile compound quantification in nonfat and whole milk. Journal of Food Science 70(7):S413–S418, 2005.
- Hershey’s Giant Special Dark Chocolate Candy Bar, 6.8 Oz. https://www.walmart.com/ip/Hershey-s-Giant-Special-Dark-Chocolate-Candy-Bar-6-8-Oz/10452234
- 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.
- What Is Vegetable Glycerin? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vegetable-glycerin#what-it-is
- Flickinger, Brent D.; Matsuo, Noboru (February 2003). “Nutritional characteristics of DAG oil”. Lipids. 38 (2): 129–132. https://aocs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1007/s11745-003-1042-8
- Sonntag, Norman O. V. (1982). “Glycerolysis of fats and methyl esters — Status, review and critique”. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. 59 (10): 795A–802A. https://aocs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1007/BF02634442
- IUPAC, Compendium of Chemical Terminology, 2nd ed. (the “Gold Book”) (1997). Online corrected version: (2006–) “glycerides” http://goldbook.iupac.org/terms/view/G02647
- Soy Lecithin In Chocolate: Why Is It So Controversial? – https://thechocolatejournalist.com/soy-lecithin-chocolate/
- Colbert LB. Lecithins tailored to your emulsification needs. Cereal Foods World 43(9):686–688, 1998.