REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
But right now, chocolate. It's more than just another candy to many people. Americans eat some 12 pounds of chocolate every year. But now there's a citizen's petition at the Food and Drug Administration to allow a change in the way chocolate is made. Yes, the government monitors what goes into chocolate. And chocoholics worry the change will spoil their favorite food group.
In an op ed in the Los Angeles Times last week, Cybele May, a candy reviewer, argued that if these changes are accepted by the FDA, chocolate would then no longer taste like chocolate. And she revealed that there may be more to the citizens behind this petition than they let on.
We'll talk with her in a minute, but we want to hear from you. If you're a chocolate lover, would still eat it if its taste were altered? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. You can also send e-mail to email@example.com. And there's a conversation online at our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation, where you can also comment on the FDA's plans to change the ingredient list on chocolate.
Cybele May is a writer who reviews candy on her blog, candyblog.net. She joins us from the studios of NPR West. Welcome to the program.
Ms. CYBELE MAY (candyblog.net): Good afternoon.
ROBERTS: So explain very briefly a sort of chocolate 101. What is in chocolate and what is it that this petition would change?
Ms. MAY: The three essentials for eating chocolate would be cocoa butter, cocoa powder or cocoa solids, and of course sugar. And manufacturers add other things like emulsifiers like lecithin and of course vanilla. What the new proposal before the FDA would allow them to substitute the cocoa butter that's inherent to the cocoa bean for other vegetable fats, either in whole or total.
So you would end up with something that has cocoa powder in it, but does not have that wonderful cocoa butter that melts in the mouth but stays solid at room temperature.
ROBERTS: And can you give us an example of a substance made with cocoa powder and vegetable oil that we might be familiar with?
Ms. MAY: You might be familiar with some of those very large Easter bunnies that you find probably after Easter. They're made from vegetable fat.
ROBERTS: The on sale Easter bunnies is what you're saying?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MAY: The on sale - yes. The very cheap ones. In fact, I bought one just as an example because I thought I should. It was 34 cents about a week and a half ago. And the first ingredient on the list is hydrogenated vegetable oil.
ROBERTS: And who's behind this petition?
Ms. MAY: The petition - the citizen's petition - the Grocery Manufacturers Association is the first signatory on it. The Chocolate Manufacturers Association is on there. It also deals with a lot of other things in our food. So there's the fisheries, there's meat, there's the grain people, but for the most part it's the Grocery Manufacturers Association behind it.
ROBERTS: And what do you, as a candy aficionado, think of the taste of chocolate flavored items made without cocoa butter?
Ms. MAY: Well, we call it mockolate for a reason.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MAY: It is not chocolate. There is - it's just not the same. And just about everybody can tell the difference. Even I could tell the difference when I was five years old and wouldn't touch those big strange bunnies that sat in my Easter basket.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Gary in Jacksonville. Gary, welcome to the program.
GARY (Caller): Hey, thank you. Oh, crap. I'm breaking up. You say...
ROBERTS: We can hear you.
GARY: You can hear me? All right. That's all I need to know. Yeah, I can't understand what all the worries about health problems while you're going to put a fake oil and fake butter something that's probably worse for your arteries than would ever be for coming from the cocoa butter itself; it's more of a natural product than hydrogenated oil, and then say, the FDA saying it's good for you, you know. I mean...
ROBERTS: Are you a chocolate fan, Gary?
GARY: Oh, yeah.
ROBERTS: And would that change if vegetable oil were in your chocolate?
GARY: Yeah, probably would. Along with the taste, I just like 60 percent dark cocoa baker's chocolate. I don't want a lot of milk in it. I don't want a lot of - I just want chocolate and a little bit of chocolate - you know, the butter and the chocolate itself.
ROBERTS: Gary, thanks for your call. Cybele, right now what is labeled chocolate - I mean, if it's labeled chocolate, it has to have cocoa butter in it?
Ms. MAY: Absolutely, and it cannot contain other vegetable oils. It has to be completely from the cocoa bean.
ROBERTS: So those mockolate bunnies, what are they labeled?
Ms. MAY: They're labeled chocolate-flavored or chocolaty. Basically the product that the FDA that is seeking - that has been petitioned to the FDA already exists. We have these products available, and we reject them or we do not buy them unless we don't care, unless we want to decorate something and not actually eat it. So what they're asking for is to use the venerated name of chocolate for this inferior product.
ROBERTS: And again, the FDA is accepting public comment through April 25th. You can find a way to participate in that comment on our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation. We're joined now by Fran Bigelow. She's the founder and owner of Fran's Chocolates in Seattle, Washington. She joins us from her office there. Welcome to the program.
Ms. FRAN BIGELOW (Owner, Fran's Chocolates): Hello, Rebecca. It's a pleasure to be here.
ROBERTS: Would you ever use vegetable fats and oils instead of cocoa butter in your chocolate?
Ms. BIGELOW: No, no, no. I think what we've been doing for years - I mean, I started like 25 years ago, and what I've been doing all that time is just being a champion of pure chocolate, and we just are fighting to protect the integrity of chocolate. We just - we try to educate consumers all the time.
It's just been, you know, this battle to get them to go with darker and darker chocolate, chocolate that's good for you, understand the wonderful flavors of pure chocolate, and now we would have so many things being called chocolate that the education part, it would just be so confusing.
ROBERTS: And in addition to sort of sullying the grand old tradition of, you know, the wonderful, venerable chocolate, what would be different if you didn't use cocoa butter? What would the substance be different?
Ms. BIGELOW: The whole taste, the whole mouth feel. Part of it - I mean, chocolate is just this amazingly, you know, kind of almost magical food. I think it's why it's so revered. It's - you know, it's a pure product, and it's, you know, it's, you know, it's actually, you know, a natural product. It's a fruit, but it has these qualities. It just is this, you know, whole feel-good wonderful layers of flavor. You know, it's just altogether a fabulous food.
ROBERTS: Now, your company, Fran's Chocolates, is a small, you know, boutique, high-end chocolate-maker. For the larger mass manufacturers of chocolate, is there an economic or speed advantage to replacing cocoa butter?
Ms. BIGELOW: Oh, it's so much cheaper. You know, so their products, you know, would be able to go down in cost. What I see is that there's no benefit to the consumer, but there's a benefit to the manufacturers that are using those vegetable oils or the lower-cost ingredients. And you know, as Cybele already said, these products are already out there, and I think that by, you know, by labeling them as such, you know, the consumer can make that choice. You know, now it's just going to be confusing if we have so many things labeled chocolate. You know, where we want to know what pure chocolate is, and that's the chocolate with the actual cocoa butter in that gives that wonderful, you know, melting sensation, that mouth feel and that beautiful texture and flavor.
ROBERTS: Cybele, it was interesting. In the petition, the petitioners included this phraseology that basically amounts to consumers won't know the difference.
Ms. MAY: Exactly. They are stating that we don't know what chocolate is; therefore we won't notice if they change it, and I don't think that that's true, and I think that that's what this lovely open comment period is going to prove to them, is that we do pay attention to what is in our chocolate, and I don't want to have to flip over the chocolate bar to read the ingredients to know what I'm getting. I want to know on the front that it is chocolate with cocoa butter.
ROBERTS: Well, let's ask our audience. Do you have expectations from your chocolate? Would they be altered if this rule went through in the FDA? Do you have - do you know good chocolate when you taste it? 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Let's hear from Frank in Cleveland Heights. Frank, welcome to the program. I think we've lost Frank. Let's try Bob in Reno, Nevada. Bob, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BOB (Caller): Hello, how are you doing?
ROBERTS: Good, how are you?
BOB: Pretty good. I was telling your screener that if manufacturers started using sub-par ingredients such as, you know, not using cocoa butter, that that's okay with me because, you know - if a Snickers started using it, and it tasted different, I would no longer buy Snickers, and the gourmet chocolate places, you know, could actually benefit from this by billing themselves as, you know, quality makers of chocolate and stuff. I've tasted some gourmet chocolate bars that were $8 a bar that, you know, I had to look at the ingredients and see what was in it, but it tasted like crap. So you know, what does it all matter?
ROBERTS: Bob, thanks for your call. Fran Bigelow, could this be a selling point for you? If mass-produced chocolate were degraded in its quality, could it up your reputation as a boutique chocolate-maker?
Ms. BIGELOW: I think he's got a point there. However, I just think that if we label it different - I just think it's so confusing to the consumer, and I think that they're asking to know what's in their food, and they're searching out pure foods in all matters of foods that they're getting in the market, so I think that just - I think the label chocolate should be chocolate.
ROBERTS: What label would you give the chocolate with vegetable oil?
Ms. BIGELOW: Well, I mean I think there's other things out there. You can say it's, you know, chocolate-like. We used to call it always compound chocolate or, you know, they do have other ways of naming it.
ROBERTS: And so you wouldn't be in favor of some sort of derogatory name for it like mockolate, the way Cybele...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BIGELOW: Well, I think they've decided, you know, ways to - you know, they can say like, you know, real chocolate flavor. You know, I mean they use those terms like right now on the grocery store shelf. I think that that's confusing enough, but when we really think about what everyone's looking for now, there's, you know, going away from hydrogenated oils or other oils, you know, that are in things, they just want the pure food, I mean that - and that's what, you know, we're preaching is just, you know, get your food, you know, in its purest state and get pure chocolate.
ROBERTS: Fran Bigelow is founder and owner of Fran's Chocolates in Seattle, Washington. She joined us from her office in Seattle. Thanks so much for joining us.
Ms. BIGELOW: You're welcome. Thank you.
ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
So Cybele May, do you have any sense of the prospects for this petition? Do you know if it's likely to go through?
Ms. MAY: Honestly, I don't know. This is the first time I've gotten involved with one of these. I've heard a rumor that the FDA may extend the comment period on this particular petition, which would be nice because I think we're just getting the word out to the public that this is something that they have a voice in, and there's also other things within this petition as well that I have not read through completely that may also be of interest to lay people.
ROBERTS: How did you find out about it?
Ms. MAY: I was at a fancy food show and there was a chocolate panel and somebody mentioned that this afoot and got on an e-mail mailing list and followed up with it and started to try to get the word out so that we could respond. When they said that we don't know the difference, I want them to know that we do.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from John in Vancouver, Washington. John, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JOHN (Caller): Hi, thank you.
JOHN: Say it again?
ROBERTS: You're on the air, John.
JOHN: Oh, well I had a question. I mean, my question is I guess health-related. You started to answer it, I think. I have high cholesterol and I'm pretty fastidious about not going with anything that's a hydrogenated oil, and I eat higher-quality chocolate, pure chocolate in very small amounts. It's kind of the same way I am about butter and margarine. I'll eat small amounts of butter, but I totally avoid margarine. I think that that is indicated health-wise. My question is, is this an angle on the petition that has been addressed?
ROBERTS: Thanks for your call, John. Cybele, is there a health angle here? Could people encourage the FDA not to just degrade the taste but the health benefits of chocolate?
Ms. MAY: Well, the petition actually says that it's a safe and suitable substitution, and if there are people who are concerned about different tropical oils being substituted for cocoa butter - cocoa butter has already been shown to be neutral for blood cholesterol levels, so if you don't want to end up with some palm kernel oil or hydrogenated oil or coconut oil, it's very important that the FDA know that it's not a suitable substitution because of these issues.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Leslie in Overland Park, Kansas. Leslie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
LESLIE: Yes, hi, thank you. I just wanted to add kind of to what Fran said about hydrogenated oils. I avoid partially hydrogenated oils, and so if something were completely hydrogenated, I would avoid it like the plague. I'm kind of a do-it-yourselfer, and I would probably try to make my own chocolate or order from Fran if real chocolate were no longer available.
ROBERTS: Have you ever made your own chocolate?
LESLIE: No, I've just like melted Dove chocolates and put them into shapes, but yeah, I have a husband with high cholesterol, and we try to avoid things like high-fructose corn syrup. I'm a little too picky. Sometimes I walk away from the bread aisle or other aisles with nothing just because I couldn't pick something that I felt good enough about. So I make some things, but you know, I agree about hydrogenated oils. I'll probably make a comment myself.
ROBERTS: Leslie, thanks for your call. Cybele May, how hard is it to make your own chocolate?
Ms. MAY: I think it's a little too hard for the layperson to make if you want to start from beans because you have to grind them all up, but it is very easy still to get good, you know, base chocolate that you can work with yourself, and I don't think it's going to go away. No matter what happens with this, even if this were to go through, high-end chocolate will still exist. It always does. I mean, you will always find people who are willing to pay a premium for the premium product, and some of the members of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association have already said that they - even though they may be permitted to do these things, they will not because they have integrity and a history of creating really good quality chocolate products.
ROBERTS: And how common is it in mass-produced chocolate? I mean, when you look at, you know, your typical candy bar, is that cocoa-butter chocolate most of the time?
Ms. MAY: Oh, absolutely. You look at your Hershey bars, your Hershey, your Snickers, your M&Ms. They're all real chocolate as defined currently by the FDA. They contain a lot more sugar, they don't contain quite as high quality of cocoa, but they are real chocolate according to the United States at the moment.
ROBERTS: Cybele May reviews candy on her blog, candyblog.net, and we have a link to her op-ed at our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation. She joined us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City. Thanks, Cybele.
Ms. MAY: Thank you so much, Rebecca.
ROBERTS: And again, also on our blog you can find a way to comment on the FDA's open comment time, which we believe to be through April 25th but may be extended. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.
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