Hands off my chocolate, FDA!


THE AVERAGE American eats 12 pounds of chocolate a year. That's about a chocolate bar every other day. (I am above average, judging by the fact that I eat enough chocolate to deduct it as a line item on my tax return.)

To sum up so far: Americans eat a lot of chocolate.

That's cool, because we also make a lot of it. We make everything from the inexpensive milk chocolate bars that you buy at the supermarket checkout counter to the decadent, limited-edition chocolate bars made from "handpicked beans from a single hillside in Venezuela," for which there's a waiting list.

It's all basically made the same way: cacao pods are fermented and then roasted and ground into a fine paste that can be separated into two components: cacao solids (commonly called cocoa powder) and cocoa butter. Each chocolatier uses different proportions but generally blends sugar, cocoa solids and cocoa butter plus the optional ingredients — emulsifiers, flavors (typically vanilla) and milk solids (to make milk chocolate) — and molds that into a chocolate bar.

A little over 100 years ago, Milton Hershey created the nickel bar, the first American chocolate bar for the masses. Today, these small purchases of chocolate products add up to an $18-billion business. Like all foods in the United States, chocolate is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that consumers get a safe and consistent product.

But perhaps no longer. The FDA is entertaining a "citizen's petition" to allow manufacturers to substitute vegetable fats and oils for cocoa butter.

The "citizens" who created this petition represent groups that would benefit most from this degradation of the current standards. They are the Chocolate Manufacturers Assn., the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., the Snack Food Assn. and the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (OK, I'm not sure what's in it for them), along with seven other food producing associations.

This is what they think of us chocolate eaters, according to their petition on file at the FDA:

"Consumer expectations still define the basic nature of a food. There are, however, no generally held consumer expectations today concerning the precise technical elements by which commonly recognized, standardized foods are produced. Consumers, therefore, are not likely to have formed expectations as to production methods, aging time or specific ingredients used for technical improvements, including manufacturing efficiencies."

Let me translate: "Consumers won't know the difference."

I can tell you right now — we will notice the difference. How do I know? Because the product they're trying to rename "chocolate" already exists. It's called "chocolate flavored" or "chocolaty" or "cocoalicious." You can find it on the shelves right now at your local stores in the 75% Easter sale bin, those waxy/greasy mock-chocolate bunnies and foil-wrapped eggs that sit even in the most sugar-obsessed child's Easter basket well into July.

It may be cocoa powder that gives chocolate its taste, but it is the cocoa butter that gives it that inimitable texture. It is one of the rare, naturally occurring vegetable fats that is solid at room temperature and melts as it hits body temperature — that is to say, it melts in your mouth. Cocoa butter also protects the antioxidant properties of the cocoa solids and gives well-made chocolate its excellent shelf life.

Because it's already perfectly legal to sell choco-products made with cheaper oils and fats, what the groups are asking the FDA for is permission to call these waxy impostors "chocolate." Because we "haven't formed any expectations."

I'd say we've already demonstrated our preference for true chocolate. That's why real chocolate outsells fake chocolate. Nine of the 10 bestselling U.S. chocolate candies are made with the real stuff. M&Ms, Hershey Bars, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups — all real chocolate. Butterfinger is the outlier.

Granted, a change to the "food standards of identity" won't require makers to remove some or all of the cocoa butter, it would just allow them to. But really, why else would they ask?

But as long as they're asking, the FDA does have a way for other citizens to voice their expectations. It's buried deep in its website. Until April 25, the agency is accepting comments — by fax, mail or online — on a docket with the benign-sounding name of "2007P-0085: Adopt Regulations of General Applicability to All Food Standards that Would Permit, Within Stated Boundaries, Deviations from the Requirements of the Individual Food Standards of Identity."

I'm telling them to keep it real.

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