Calling all chocoholics. Put down the truffles and power up the PC. It's time to weigh in on a fundamental question: What is chocolate?
Two of California's oldest confectioners, See's Candies Inc. and Guittard Chocolate Co., are battling an attempt to loosen government rules that dictate what ingredients go into the sweet stuff.
Legally, the candy that melts hearts and comforts the brokenhearted is made with cocoa butter and, in the case of milk chocolate, whole milk. But the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group, wants to let confectioners substitute cheaper ingredients -- vegetable oils and milk protein concentrates.
Gary Guittard, president of his eponymous, family-owned business, sees this as a battle for the soul of the popular confection.
"Anybody who has a passion for chocolate doesn't want to see it adulterated," said Guittard, whose great-grandfather Etienne Guittard founded the company in San Francisco in 1868.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Chocolate: An article in Saturday's Section A on changing rules for chocolate manufacturers misspelled Adreana Langston's first name as Andrea.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Chocolate standards: A photograph accompanying an article in Section A on April 14 about a proposal to loosen government rules that dictate what ingredients go into chocolate described the candy pictured as containing walnuts. In fact, the confection shown contained pecans.
But the trade group, which has the support of the Chocolate Manufacturers of America, says it's just thinking outside the old chocolate box. The petition is part of a broad effort to give its members more flexibility in choosing the ingredients that go into many food products. A spokeswoman said the proposed rules would not prevent companies such as See's and Guittard from adhering to the current standards for chocolate.
Nevertheless, Guittard and See's Chief Executive Brad Kinstler want America's chocoholics to complain loudly to the Food and Drug Administration before April 25, the day the agency will stop taking public comments on the issue.
It's a big constituency. About a quarter of Americans eat chocolate at least once every two weeks, according to market research firm NPD Group Inc. All told, the U.S. consumes 3.6 billion pounds of chocolate annually -- that's 12 pounds per person.
The chocolatiers have urged lovers of the candy to visit Guittard's DontMessWithOur Chocolate.com website, where they can electronically submit complaints to the FDA.
The idea of substituting vegetable oil for cocoa butter, a natural component of the cocoa bean that is the traditional source of chocolate, irks Andrea Langston of Long Beach.
"I would feel like I was being duped," said Langston, who has taken a liking to dark organic chocolate.
"It's $3.50 a bar, but it is so worth it. You just eat one square at a time," said the 36-year-old employee of a computer products company.
Langston and other self- respecting lovers of what the Mayans called the food of the gods should be worried about producers' substituting oils for cocoa butter, said Kristy Choo, artisan chocolatier at Jin Patisserie in Venice.
"It won't be as intense as a real chocolate. It will have a waxy taste," said Choo, whose mango-basil, lavender and ginger-cinnamon chocolate squares sell in a six-piece box for $15.
Price is at the heart of the argument over whether manufacturers should be allowed to change the ingredients of chocolate, said Kinstler of See's, which has 205 stores and is based in South San Francisco.
"You can make chocolate a lot cheaper with vegetable oil," he said.
A pound of chocolate contains more than 4 ounces of cocoa butter, at a cost of about $2.30, said Guittard Chocolate, based in Burlingame, Calif. The same amount of vegetable oil was 70 cents.
Hershey Co., which supports the Grocery Manufacturers' petition, said the standards were created decades ago and should be modernized.
By adopting the proposal, the FDA would be providing "flexibility to make changes based on consumer taste preferences, ingredient costs and availability and shelf life," said Kirk Saville, spokesman for the Hershey, Pa.-based company.
Saville said it could be years before the FDA issued a decision.
Hershey is supporting the move to loosen chocolate rules at a time when sales of premium and gourmet versions of the food are exploding.
Late last year, Hershey launched its upscale Cacao Reserve brand. Two years ago, it purchased artisan chocolatier Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker Inc., a Berkeley confectioner known for its dark chocolates and cocoa. It also recently acquired Ashland, Ore.-based Dagoba Organic Chocolate.
The proposed rule change is part of a strategy by Hershey and other large producers to segment the industry, lowering the quality and expense of everyday candy bars while marketing high-quality, high-priced premium chocolate, said Marcia Mogelonsky, an analyst with market research firm Mintel International.
"If you take the cocoa butter out of an inexpensive candy bar, most people probably won't notice," Mogelonsky said.
Sales of premium chocolate topped $2 billion last year, a 129% increase in five years, Mintel said. Sales are expected to continue at a torrid pace, reaching $3.5 billion by 2011.
Gourmet offerings include chocolate infused with wine, honey, chai and other exotic flavors.
Some bars are made with cacao from a single region, almost like a wine appellation, and others have high cacao contents ranging up to 72%.
Medical studies that have found that flavonols and antioxidants in chocolate might play a role in reducing strokes and heart failure -- as long as the fat doesn't kill you -- have only added to the growth in premium chocolate bars, Mogelonsky said.
Gary Guittard believes that in proposing to change the rules, the food industry is overthinking what he believes should be one of the simple joys of life.
"Why add ingredients to something that is just fine the way it is?" he asked.