The bitter sweet truth about chocolate

If you're serious about making food decisions based on environmental and ethical concerns, you need to carefully check out the chocolate you're buying

13 February 2019 - 17:38 By andrea burgener
Be on the look out for good shine and snap as a sign of a quality chocolate.
Be on the look out for good shine and snap as a sign of a quality chocolate.
Image: 123RF/Nailia Schwarz

As Valentine’s Day rears its red and pink, slightly ridiculous head, chocolate sales increase in leaps and bounds. Sweet stuff in general goes hand-in-hand with gestures of affection and special occasions, but only Easter tops Valentine’s for a focus on cocoa-derived loot. It’s just plain sad then, that, unless you’re loaded, most of what’s on offer is horrible. And, even where price is no object, the pickings are slim.

Curiously, the more "present-worthy" chocolate gets, the further it seems to move from actually being chocolate. I just don’t get the allure of the sickly-sweet, fruited fondant or fudgy pastes of many filled truffles. These might come in impressive shapes and colours, further elevated by exquisite packaging, but for me they aren’t chocolates.

These shiny jewels are confections — sweeties — which is surely why people who transform cocoa beans into chocolate are called chocolatiers, while people who use this chocolate to make truffles and so on are called confectioners.

Nothing wrong with a pretty piece of confectionery, I suppose, but if you’re into actual chocolate, then forget these nubbins. The unadulterated stuff is where it's at. And if your Valentine is a genuine chocolate lover, then I reckon they’ll thank you for realising that.

Real dark chocolate boasts much healthy natural fat, making it a better choice than almost any other sweet option

Real dark chocolate is incredible. It triggers feel-good chemicals, is full of antioxidants and minerals, and boasts much healthy natural fat, making it a better choice than almost any other sweet option.

But chocolate is also complicated. With the new vegan movement highlighting the environmental impact and ethical issues relating to animal-derived products, non-animal based items with very similar issues have less light shone upon them and are happily accepted by vegans and omnivores alike.

If we’re serious about making food decisions based on these concerns, then we should also carefully check out the chocolate we’re buying. Deforestation and ethical employment are the two issues that would benefit from our scrutiny.

Confusingly, what’s good gastronomically (usually expensive) doesn’t necessarily mean good in other ways, and vice-versa. Cadbury is rarely my chocolate of choice (unless faced with a fondant-filled truffle), and yet it has a wide range of products certified as Fairtrade, which many more premium brands don’t.

Sustainable agroforestry also needs to be supported: this helps to regenerate land and protect biodiversity, provide multiple employment streams, and sequester carbon. Even these enterprises aren't always the fairy story they claim to be. The issues are complex and it's pretty much unavoidable that you'll need to do a little research on anything you buy.


Do an online search for good local producers —Beyers Chocolates, Honest Chocolate, CocoaFair, and DV Chocolate, for example — the latter being my pick.

Hunt in posh grocery shops and delis, or even order a 2.5kg bag of Callebaut’s darkest chocolate chips and hand that over to your beloved.

• Burgener is owner of and chef at The Leopard, 44 Stanley Avenue, Joburg.

• This was originally published in Business Day's Wanted magazine. To get the best in luxury lifestyle news, visit