Dark chocolate used to be an acquired taste. The trouble is, we've all acquired it. As cocoa prices soar, and a shortage looms, our changing tastes could be threatening the very source of our pleasure
Black gold: Our love affair with
chocolate just got darker
By Susie Mesure
Maybe it was the great Dairy Milk salmonella scare last year, or perhaps it's just the snob factor associated with bringing out the post-dinner slab of Green & Black's. Either way, a 25 per cent jump in dark chocolate sales in the UK pretty much speaks for itself.
As a nation we are turning our backs on the bland taste of milk chocolate, which is often saturated with vegetable oil, and coming over all Belgian or French when it comes to treating ourselves to something sweet. Dark chocolate now dominates counters in many supermarkets and even Woolworths, that arbiter of mass-market tastes, agrees that demand is soaring.
But chocoholics should brace themselves. Fears over a global chocolate shortage have sparked a run on the dark stuff on world cocoa markets that has pushed the price up of cacao beans (used to make cocoa) to their highest level for more than two years.
With the Easter countdown well and truly under way - only 18 days now for all you Lent puritans - the timing of a potential threat to world supplies takes the biscuit. The chocolate biscuit, that is.
The price of cocoa futures, which is how the beans are traded on world commodity markets, has climbed steadily since last November, reviving fears of the cocoa crisis of 2002 that forced major manufacturers such as Nestlé to hike the price of some of its chocolate bars.
Although speculators have been fingered for pushing the price of cocoa higher, British chocolate aficionados must share at least some of the blame for the run on the bean. Soaring demand for dark chocolate in the UK has put a rocket under the global price of cacao beans, compounding the impact of a severe drought in West Africa, which is home to much of the world's cacao bean supplies.
For the first time, dark chocolate bars are outselling their milk siblings in Woolworths. "Two years ago the hot thing in chocolate was white. Now dark is the flavour of the month," according to Trevor Bish-Jones, chief executive of the pick'n'mix retailer that dominates the Easter-egg market.
"Consumers are doing the same thing in chocolate as in the rest of the food market. They are trading up and being more discerning about what they buy," he adds.
Woolies has responded by doubling the number of dark chocolate lines it stocks in its stores: 20 per cent of all its so-called "block chocolate" on its biggest display units are dark chocolate compared with 10 per cent just 12 months ago.
Dig down a bit through Woolworths' sales data and the trends are even more astounding. Green & Black's dark chocolate bars are outselling its milk varieties by a ratio of two to one. And the organic chocolate maker's 70 per cent cocoa egg is one of the retailer's best sellers. "Dark chocolate has definitely become a mass market trend," Bish-Jones confirms.
All of the country's top supermarket chains have added new premium dark chocolate varieties to their own-brand ranges in response to this phenomenon. Sainsbury's, for example, has added a Fairtrade Cocoa Pod, made with dark Fairtrade chocolate from the Ivory Coast, to its Easter eggs ranges.
Supermarkets have also expanded the number of dark chocolate lines they stock, dwarfing their milk chocolate variants in some cases. Asda doesn't even bother with Divine's milk chocolate bars, preferring to stock only the dark versions from the Fairtrade chocolate maker part owned by the Ghanaian co-operative, Kuapa Kokoo, that supplies it.
Of course, it takes more beans to produce a bar of dark chocolate than are needed for a bar of milk - and that's at the root of the problem. Yesterday the cost of cacao beans for delivery in July on the London cocoa exchange shot to £1,028 a tonne on exceptionally heavy trading. This was up £22 on the day and the highest price that the crop has fetched at any point since November 2004. The cost of buying cacao beans was pushed higher by canny investors who have placed record bets that prices will keep rising.
Hedge funds, which make money by punting on whether commodity or share prices will rise or fall, have swallowed up a third of the cocoa contracts traded in New York, the other main cocoa trading centre. So far, industry buyers, such as Cadbury Schweppes, have refrained from joining the frenzy, although traders believe that a jump in prices will prompt them to build up their stocks.
Prices have risen nearly 30 per cent since the beginning of December, largely on growing concern about what farmers in Ivory Coast, the biggest cacao bean producer in west Africa, have dubbed the worst drought in living memory. To make matters worse, demand is outstripping supply as the teeth of consumers in developing markets begin to sweeten. The International Cocoa Organisation predicts a global cocoa shortfall of around 100,000 tonnes this year alone, although private forecasts warn the deficit could be as much as 250,000 tonnes.
Anthony Ward, the world's most notorious chocolate trader (who was dubbed "Chocolate Finger" during the last cocoa price spike for stockpiling the bean), has warned that big manufacturers will have to pay more to get the right beans.
And getting the right beans is becoming crucial in a market that is fast following in the footsteps of wine and coffee in terms of getting consumers to appreciate its effect on the palate.
Mark Palmer, a director of Green & Black's, the organic chocolate pioneer that first hit the shelves in 1991, explains: "People these days are willing to experiment more with food and drink. Rather like wine and coffee, people are realising there are varieties of chocolate available. Dark used to be a niche of a niche, but it's now a foodie way of describing chocolate."
Alan Porter, chairman of the Chocolate Society, which was set up to extol the virtues of eating high-quality sweet treats, adds: "With dark chocolate you are tasting the cocoa, whereas with milk you are tasting the recipe."
There are 450 different flavour elements in a single cacao bean, which itself varies in taste depending on where it is grown. Chocolate from Colombia might seem peppery, while chocolate from Venezuela might smell like vanilla, for example. This is driving demand for an über premium version: the so-called single-estate chocolate bar, which sources its beans from a single location.
Global confectionery giants such as Hershey's, best known for a particularly bland form of chocolate that even the most unsophisticated British chocoholic tends to avoid, are jumping on the bandwagon. Hershey's recently launched a Single Origin collection as part of a major push into the premium chocolate market. Closer to home, Cadbury has launched a "deeply dark" version of its Bournville bar, with twice the cocoa content of its original bar, at 60 per cent.
Cadbury, which saw its milk chocolate sales slip 2.5 per cent last year on the back of that salmonella scare, has also started selling a dark version of its classic Flake bar.
And Nestlé has said that more of its new, dark KitKats are bought by people aged 34 to 45 years old than its classic milk version. There is even a dark version of the ambassador's favourite, Ferrero Rocher - one of 600 new dark-chocolate products that hit the market last year, according to Mintel, the market research agency.
With so many products describing themselves as dark chocolate, it can be hard for the committed milk chocolate-eater even to know where to start when it comes to upping his or her cocoa intake. And it is that cocoa intake that experts believe is fuelling growth in the market.
Scientists are falling over themselves to complete studies showing that moderate consumption of high-quality chocolate can be good for you. Only last week a Harvard professor unveiled research suggesting that a nutrient in cocoa called epicatechin could lower the risks of cancer, strokes, heart disease and diabetes. Dr Norman Hollenberg, of Harvard Medical School, based his findings on a study of the Kuna people of Panama, who are weaned on cocoa and can drink up to 40 cups of the stuff a week.
Separate research at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, late last year found that snacking on dark chocolate decreased the development of potentially fatal blood clots. And other studies have found that dark chocolate has proportionately more antioxidants than other foods that are better known for their health-giving properties, such as red wine, green tea and berries.
Alan Porter keeps chocolate's health-giving properties in perspective. He says: "Health has played a role, but more as a justification for consumption than anything else." He thinks dark chocolate's big selling point is that it doesn't trap the chocoholic in the same downward sugar-craving spiral as milk chocolate versions. Parents should bear this in mind when they go shopping for their children's Easter treats, he thinks.
"We have to wean our children off their craving for sugar. If you give children who don't generally like dark chocolate some quality chocolate then, speaking from experience, you generally find that you can quite often get them to say, 'Oh, that's nice.' The secret is the quality and to give them a little rather than a lot.
"Easter egg hunts should be with lots of tiny, high-quality eggs of 55 per cent cocoa content and above. Plus, if it's small, they're not putting a massive gob-full in," says Porter.
A new breed of fashionable diets, from the GI (glycaemic index) diet to the South Beach version, has also helped to promote the cause of dark chocolate. Most dieticians agree that a little of what you fancy does you more good than outright denial - the Montaignac diet goes even further and recommends snacking on the odd square or two of dark chocolate which, helpfully, has a low GI count because of its high fat content.
Sophi Tranchell, managing director of Divine Chocolate, thinks that more people are eating dark chocolate because "the products have got better". The challenge with higher cocoa variants is to get the right trade-off between the percentage of bitter-tasting cocoa, which is where all the good micronutrients come from, and sugar.
"In the past, dark chocolate was bitter and reasonably gritty tasting," Tranchell says. Divine got round that by using a "quite gentle-tasting cocoa bean which, if you're new to dark chocolate, doesn't scare you off".
Green & Black's head of taste, Micah Carr-Hill, says that adding a hint of vanilla was the secret to making its darkest-ever chocolate bar which, at 85 per cent cocoa, has just gone on sale in Sainbury's. "Vanilla acts as a seasoning to soften the bitter notes of the cocoa and to bring out the sweetness," he says.
Although the world cacao price is linked to much more than just a maturing British palate, industry experts agree that soaring demand for high cocoa versions will only increase pressure on those already tight supplies. "The more dark chocolate that is sold, the greater the amount of cacao beans required to make all the new varieties," according to Green & Black's Mark Palmer.
That is pretty good news for cacao bean producers, who are clustered in countries around the Equator. Tim Rice, trade policy offer at ActionAid, says: "If the trend to dark chocolate increases global demand for cocoa beans enough to push up prices, that would be a good thing for producers." (Although he would also like to see developing countries export more value-added products.) It would also help the world's environment, which benefits from bumper cacao crops because the plant only grows under the canopy of rainforests.
It remains to be seen whether cacao prices will hit the highs last seen five years ago. Either way, Easter provides a useful opportunity for devotees to stockpile. After all, as Carr-Hill says: "Because dark chocolate is very intense in flavour, you only need one or two squares to feel satisfied." And he should know.
Dark secrets: six to savourAmedei bar
Founded in Tuscany in 1990, Amedei has become probably the world's foremost chocolate maker, bagging three out of five gold medals in the best bar category at the most recent World Chocolate Awards. Its Porcelana is so exclusive that every bar is numbered, and 70 per cent Chuao isn't exactly plebeian. 50g for £4.75. Available from Harvey Nichols, London SW1; The Chocolate Gourmet, Ludlow, www.chocolategourmet.co.uk; 01584 879 332; www.seventypercent.com
Malagasy Mora Mora
Claiming to be the fairest of fair trade enterprises, this chocolate is grown, produced and packaged in Madagascar. That way all the benefits stay in the country where the cocoa comes from. It's a delicate almost floral dark chocolate, a blend of criollo, trinitario and forastero beans, and one you can eat more of than some others.
85g, £3-£3.25; www.malagasy.co.uk 0152 463 706 for stockists, including Waitrose, Fortnum & Mason, Chocolate Society, www.seventypercent.com
L'Artisan du Chocolat Madagascar bar
From the first of the new wave chocolatiers, whose tobacco chocolates and tonka bean bars are as legendary as Heston Blumenthal's cutting edge creations, the 64 per cent Madagascar bar is a World Chocolate Award winner, noted for being exceptionally fruity and refreshing, with a bit of sharpness. Chocolate at its most couture.
45g, £2.25; L'Artisan du Chocolat, 89 Lower Sloane Street, London SW1 020-7824 8365, www.artisanduchocolat.com
Valrhona Cao Grande
Namechecked by chefs and chocolate connoisseurs, Valrhona is a reticent French company that makes Grands Crus such as Guanaja, Manjari and Caraïbe, each a different blend of beans from countries including Venezuela, Madagascar and the Caribbean, and the 64 per cent vintage bars from named plantations in Venezuela, Madagascar and Trinidad. New to the range is Cao Grande organic 70 per cent, with Valrhona's well-rounded balance of flavours.
100g, £2.50-£3.50; available from Fortnum & Mason, London W1, The Chocolate Society 08452 308 899, www.chocolate.co.uk and www.seventypercent.com
The Grenada Chocolate Company Organic Dark Chocolate 60 per cent cocoa
As if chocolate didn't already induce a sense of well-being, this one is even more feelgood. The earthy, deeply flavoured and lingeringly complex chocolate is made in Grenada with organic beans from a family cocoa plantation. Also available in a 71 per cent cocoa solids version.
113g, £5.50; www.grenadachocolate.com; available from Rococo, 321 King's Road, London SW3, 020-7352 5857 and 45 Marylebone High Street, London W1, 020-7935 7780; www.rococochocolates.com
Green & Black's Organic Dark 85 per cent Chocolate
For a big cocoa hit, try this just-launched 85 per cent cocoa solids version of the Dark bar. If you're not sure you can take that much chocolate, the 70 per cent bar is a great entry-level dark chocolate. Since the pioneering organic chocolate company - reputedly the world's first - was bought by Cadbury's, the 70 per cent and its mint, milk and other relatives have become ubiquitous. Note that only Green & Black's Maya Gold has the Fairtrade mark.
Widely available, 100g, £1.69
Some Chocolate Hotlinks
The Chocolate Kama Sutra
Manufacturing chocolate video
Chocolate and women's sexual health
Classic TV commercial for Cadbury's Milk Tray