Thursday, April 19, 2007

LATimes Editorial

imageMy editorial in the LATimes was published.

If you’re looking for the comment form on the FDA Site, go here. (Tutorial here.) Deadline is

April 25th

June 25th.

Hands off my chocolate, FDA!
The FDA may allow Big Chocolate to pass off a waxy substitute as the real thing.
By Cybele May, CYBELE MAY is a writer who reviews candy on her blog, candyblog.net.
April 19, 2007
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.

Keep up with all my coverage of the issue here. Daily reviews continue as usual below.

POSTED BY Cybele AT 8:07 am Tracker Pixel for Entry    

Comments
  1. I submitted an email to ‘fdadockets@oc.fda.gov’ about this and I hope that will suffice, but if not I’ll go through the recommended channels.

    Comment by DanielK on 4/19/07 at 11:30 am #
  2. Thank you for being the voice of the people. There’s nothing worse than getting imitation chocolate as a gift, it’s basically a paperweight. An ugly, messy paperweight.

    Comment by Ace N. on 4/19/07 at 4:08 pm #
  3. Wow, wonderful article Cybele. I’m glad you submitted it despite the artivle that was written up earlier this week.

    I’m still waiting for the write up I did for Candyaddict to be posted. :/ I hope it goes up in time.

    Comment by Sera on 4/19/07 at 4:42 pm #
  4. Congratulations on being published!

    Comment by Jessica "Su Good Eats" on 4/19/07 at 5:18 pm #
  5. Great writing! You and candyaddict are both #1!

    Comment by MSG on 4/19/07 at 8:33 pm #
  6. Congratulations, I love very much Candy

    Comment by pom d'api on 4/20/07 at 2:19 am #
  7. Nice job, Cybele! I’ve been late to jump on the bandwagon, but this really is an important issue for candy lovers everywhere!

    Comment by Patti on 4/20/07 at 3:41 am #
  8. you go girl!

    Comment by David on 4/20/07 at 3:44 am #
  9. Cybele,
    Thank you very much for stepping up on both counts.  First for informing all of us what is going on, and second for putting yourself out there and submitting your letter.  A person makes a difference in the world by what they do, not just what they say.

    Comment by Chocolate Craves on 4/20/07 at 5:03 pm #
  10. Cybele, I am totally disgusted by the mock-chocolate we get down here around Chinese New Year. I wish you the best of luck in persuading the FDA, and that I agree completely with your article. I’ve also found this website that reviews Japanese candy by Anjali: http://www.giantjeansparlor.net/archives/candy_friday/
    if you don’t already know about it.
    Both of your reviews are luxuries to read. Thank you!

    Comment by SC on 4/20/07 at 6:21 pm #
  11. Cybele, I finally got around to reading the actual FDA petition and I was surprised—it says nothing about chocolate! It’s an extensive and broad-ranging proposal to change the way the FDA regulates the ingredients in food. I’m sure the industry has some sinister things in mind, but parts of it also make good sense—food labeling guidelines date back to a time when the major concern was watering down food, rather than packing too many calories in, and when most additives were unwholsome or questionable. The industry sources propose a change to regulations that potentially COULD reduce unnecessary bureaucracy without weakening regulations that really do protect people.

    I was surprised to find out that chocolate is not mentioned in the proposal at all! I see how these changes MIGHT allow the mockolate-chocolate switch (especially considering that the chocolate manufacturer’s association is a signatory), but it seems like it’s all speculation right now. I feel like a fool for having left a comment with the FDA that assumed the proposal was more specifically about a change to what could be sold as chocolate. I think it’s misleading for the public response to be orchestrated in that way, and I think it makes our opposition weaker because we’re going to come off looking panicked and uninformed to the FDA.

    Did I miss something important? Is there a clearer indication somewhere that the desire to weasel out of using cocoa butter is a core part of this petition? I would appreciate a response.

    Thanks,

    - Michael

    Comment by Michael Cohn on 4/21/07 at 8:44 am #
  12. Awesome work, Cybele!

    Comment by :: jozjozjoz :: on 4/21/07 at 10:15 am #
  13. Cybele's avatar

    Michael - what you read on the FDA site is only the petition (cover letter) that accompanied the actual proposal. The proposal itself is EXTREMELY specific about “safe and suitable” substitions. (I’ve seen the previous draft, but not the current one.) The cocoa butter and vegetable fats is only a very small portion of this revision to the current labeling standards. Other recommendations would be to use other salts besides sodium, make loaves of bread smaller, make stewed tomatoes in different sized chunks, variations in the definition of mayonaise, etc. Some actually strike me as improvements for the consumer.

    The page on Don’t Mess With Our Chocolate lays out what the proposal is in clearly understood layman’s terms.

    The actual text of the whole proposal is not available online via the FDA. This strikes me as baffling that the FDA expects the public to comment coherently when it does not show it to anyone but those who drafted and filed it in the first place. I can forward the documents that I have which make reference in earlier (complete) versions to “bulking agents” and vegetable fats in chocolate, but in a later revision and appendix C the breakout appears.

    Even without reading the document, the repsonse from the Chocolate Manufacturers Association in their public statement is that they support the opportunity to review the current standards.

    I appreciate you checking things out from all angles, because I had the same feeling when I first started digging and couldn’t find the specific language as well in that 37 page document on the FDA dockets page.

    The point in the end is that the food manufacturer groups have said to the FDA that we have no expectations about what our food is, and all we’re doing is making it known that we do have clear expectations when it comes to chocolate. There’s no reason for any of us to feel foolish about saying this emphatically to the FDA, which is supposed to be here to protect the consumer.

    Comment by Cybele on 4/21/07 at 2:28 pm #
  14. Cybele -

    Thanks for the extra information. It’s definitely not true that I only read the cover letter. The FDA page for the petition (which you linked to in the past, but I think it was incomplete then) has two separate links, one for a brief cover letter and the other for a 35-page “citizen’s petition” that goes into extensive detail. I recognize the other examples you mentioned.

    Is there a reason you can’t post the Appendix C publicly? Government regulations? Trade secret? You had to kill a guy to get it? wink

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear that the chocolate-based comments coming in to the FDA have a textual basis, so that they’ll recognize that as an important basis on which to assess the petition.

    - Michael

    Comment by Michael Cohn on 4/21/07 at 5:01 pm #
  15. Cybele's avatar

    Michael - I’m sorry, you’re right, the petition was separate from the cover letter.

    I was trying to figure out how to post Appendix C in a way that was readable on screen. I’ve given up and just uploaded it for your perusal as the original PDF.

    I did a whole post to “show my math” right here.


    I’m sure you’re not the only one who has had a healthy sense of skepticism about this, so I may as well share what I’ve got.

    Comment by Cybele on 4/21/07 at 5:12 pm #
  16. Hey Cybele! I may be way off with this one, but there’s a candy that I think you should review.

    http://www.jbox.com/IMAGE/eabop

    The white candy in the very middle is one of the most interesting candies that I’ve had. I really really like it. They are made by Meiji and only come in this 5-pack. They’re sold at the checkout of my local Asian market. I’d love to see you photograph/review them.

    Comment by Theresa on 4/23/07 at 2:00 am #
  17. I love chocolate, but consumers should be more aware of the way in which their passion for chocolate hurts the lives of others.  Please visit this site http://www.american.edu/TED/chocolate-slave.htm

    Comment by Carolyn on 4/24/07 at 9:48 am #
  18. Great interview on Talk of the Nation today!

    Comment by Stefanie Noble on 4/24/07 at 10:14 am #
  19. Awesome article Cybele! You’ve really inspired me, throughout all your posts, to educate myself on mockolate additives like PGPR. So gross! I think we should send the FDA tons of these ugly, messy paperweights - see how they like this stuff.

    I wrote a little article about PGPR for everything2.com, to help people understand the political/gastronomical battles going on right now. It never occurred to me to cross-post it to my blog but now I think it will be appearing at candyrecapper.com real soon!

    Comment by Dani on 4/24/07 at 10:41 am #
  20. Carolyn, there’s a lot of responsible companies making chocolate.  In short, if it’s mass produced, like Hershey’s and Nestle, there’s probably child slavery involved.  If the chocolate is expensive (like Valrhona, Dagoba or Green & Black’s), it’s indicative that the cacao was bought for top dollar and cheap labor wasn’t used.  The better the flavor in the chocolate, the more carefully treated the cacao is (hence, no child slaves).  I mentioned the topic in my blog at http://www.sugoodsweets.com/blog/2007/04/save-our-chocolate

    Also, this site has a good list of slave-free chocolates (but I think it’s missing some brands): http://vision.ucsd.edu/~kbranson/stopchocolateslavery/goodchocolateproducts.html

    Comment by Jessica "Su Good Eats" on 4/24/07 at 6:47 pm #
  21. Can I just say that since I hit post on my pro-chocolate post yesterday (thanks for your comments BTW) I have been getting hits from Conagra and ADM and all sorts of interesting people.

    I truly hope that they read the one part that was for them - that I have trust issues about them now.. its about what I feed my kids and if your a massive company that is actively trying to degrade the quality of the foods in my kid’s lives then I take notice.

    Comment by nika on 4/25/07 at 3:44 am #
  22. Thanks, Cybele, for all you’ve done on this topic.  You know, I’ve been thinking about this issue and its proximity to Easter has generated some interesting personal observations (can’t guarantee they’ll intrigue anyone else).  I’ve always loved chocolate (though even as a kid, I was not overly fond of Hershey’s—except the special dark bar), and preferred it to white chocolate.  But, when I was little I never wanted the chocolate easter bunnies, only the white chocolate ones—they tasted better to me.  I wonder now if it was because the the “chocolate” bunnies were mockolate, (or used less cocoa butter), whereas the white chocolate bunnies had to use a considerable amount of cocoa butter.  Hmm.  And as to when exactly it was that I was little, let’s just say that I’m within a few years of Cybele!

    Comment by Karen Samuels on 4/25/07 at 11:05 am #
  23. Not only is this an important issue for the average consumer, but also for those of us who depend on the unique abilities of real chocolate to earn a living!

    Fake chocolate does not perform like real chocolate in a pastry shop. You can’t temper fake chocolate without using a ton of additives, which no self-respecting, high end convectioner would ever do.

    Comment by Roxanne Rieske on 4/25/07 at 1:27 pm #
  24. A gustatory affront - I hear ya!

    Comment by Scot on 4/26/07 at 2:24 am #
  25. Cybele, I just posted about the issue at my blog.

    The Real Cocoa Commotion

    Thanks for keeping us informed.

    Melissa Wiley Peterson, author of The Cocoa Commotion

    Comment by Melissa Wiley on 4/26/07 at 4:16 am #
  26. Dear Cybele - The FDA scam has so many faces and I know the biggest appeal is to “real” chocolate lovers.  But it goes to the guardianship of children across the globe.  We’ve allowed the adulteration of our food supply to such an extent that “real” food is too expensive for many families in the U.S. let alone developing countries.  The issue of child slavery and the contamination of the worldwide food supply with greed are one in same.  Thank you for your message and your efforts.  Mom

    Comment by Eva Burris on 4/27/07 at 6:54 am #
  27. Thanks for keeping on top of this issue.

    I personally work in the marketing and product development at a top 100 manufacturer of chocolate and want to keep ‘chocolate’ as a real meaning for something! 

    I believe companies should be able to substitute cheaper ingredients BUT don’t call it actual chocolate.  People have expectations and flavoring something to taste like chocolate doesn’t mean it’s chocolate.

    In summary…don’t treat consumers like they’re idiots and can’t tell the difference.  If they want something cheap and don’t care what’s in it, they’ll have no problem picking the “chocolate flavored bar” over a real “chocolate bar”.

    Comment by Kim on 4/27/07 at 10:13 am #
  28. Thanks for the heads up. This is why I find more and more I buy specialty or foreign made chocolate. The standards of consumer foods manufacturer leave much to be desired. I don’t really even eat Hershey’s minatures because I don’t consider them good quality.

    Comment by Pandax on 4/27/07 at 11:30 am #
  29. Cybele,

    Thanks for calling attention to this. I’m an editorial writer and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News, and we just published a piece this morning urging the FDA to maintain the current definition of chocolate:

    http://www.mercurynews.com/opinion/ci_5790770

    Good luck on your crusade!

    Comment by Vindu Goel on 5/01/07 at 7:53 am #
  30. Did you see this article about non-melting chocolate? I hope it still tastes good ...

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200705/s1913544.htm

    Comment by Allison on 5/04/07 at 7:54 am #
  31. This blog is excellent, and every time I look at it, all the delicous candies and chocolates make me hungry! Well, I reveiw blogs sometimes (Not as a real job or anything), and I think I’ll reveiw this one sometime! Good work with all that candy tasting!

    Comment by kbean on 5/05/07 at 5:22 am #
  32. I have submitted a comment to the FDA and posted about it on my blog here:

    http://knerq.blogspot.com/2007/05/chocolate-keep-it-real.html

    Comment by Nicole on 5/08/07 at 6:09 am #
  33. Cybele:

    I have to congratulate you publicly on your fine work bringing this to the publics attention.  It is amazing how proposals such as this so often slip under the radar.  Thank you very much for your hard work so far.

    As for ourselves, as one of America’s only artisanal chocolate factories, we are adamantly opposed to this proposal.  We are in some ways baffled why some of the large chocolate companies who have had a such a rich history in chocolate are now so willing to turn on it.  At the same time in some ways, it isn’t all that surprising.

    We have issued a public policy statement on our website so that the public knows where we stand as a company.  It may be found here:

    http://www.amanochocolate.com/articles/artificialfats.html

    Since the FDA has extended the public comment period to June 25th, there is still time to get the word out and for the public to let the FDA know that they should leave chocolate alone.

    -Art
    Art Pollard
    Founder, Amano Artisan Chocolate

    Comment by Art Pollard on 5/16/07 at 8:38 pm #

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