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Understanding Chocolate Labels

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

All chocolates are created equal, right?

We often get asked how our chocolate is different from the commercial chocolates sitting next to the Mason & Co bars on the shelves. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the type of cacao used to make the chocolate to where it was sourced, the farming practices used and the different ways of producing the chocolate (some of which are explained in our recent blog Know Your Chocolate). One simple way to tell the difference between a commercially produced chocolate and an organic and artisan chocolate is to look at the ingredients. Unfortunately, the ingredients are designed by companies to be quite misleading, so here is a quick guide to a dark chocolate ingredients list.

Note: cocoa and cacao are interchangeable for the purpose of this article.I am comparing the darkest commercial chocolate I could find in my area:Mass-market 50% Dark Chocolate BarIngredients: Sugar, Cocoa Solids, Cocoa Butter, Milk Solids, Emulsifier 442 & 476, Contains added flavour (natural and nature identical flavouring substances)Mason & Co 65% Semi Sweet ChocolateIngredients: Organic whole cacao beans, organic sugar, organic cacao butter

The Percentages

The percentages 50% and 65% refers to the actual percentage of cacao in the chocolate bar, which includes cacao beans, cacao powder and cacao butter. Remember that the cacao and cacao butter are the most expensive ingredients in a bar of chocolate!

How Many Ingredients?Mass-market: 5+ added flavourMason & Co: 3

You really only need one ingredient for chocolate: cacao beans. This would however make for a very dark chocolate, so it’s probably fairer to say that you only need 2 ingredients: cacao beans and sugar (or another sweetener). Other suitable ingredients are additional cacao butter or emulsifiers. If we are talking about dark chocolate, these should be the only ingredients!

What Is the First Ingredient?

Legally, the ingredient with the most quantity must be listed first and then it goes down the line. So what is the first ingredient?Mass-market: SugarMason & Co: Whole Cacao Beans

This means the mass-market bar contains more sugar than anything else. The first ingredient in a dark chocolate bar should always be cacao. If it’s not, then put it back on the shelf!!


Let’s look quickly at the type of sugar contained in commercial chocolate versus Mason & Co Chocolate. Almost all commercial chocolate will use refined white sugar. White sugar is indisputably bad for us, and is known to be a leading cause of Type 2 Diabetes, obesity and many other health problems. The process of refining sugar removes all the nutrients found in sugar, making it have zero nutritional value.

At Mason & Co, we use unrefined & organic sugar in our chocolate. Excluding the case of illness, we can have reasonable amounts of organic and unrefined sugar, but I am a strong advocate that refined sugar should be completely eliminated from our diets. The key is quantity and quality when eating sugar.

You can read more here about the sugar we use and the process for making it.

Cocoa Solids

Cocoa Solids is the same thing as cocoa beans, right? Wrong! One single cacao bean is made up of approximately 50% cocoa powder and 50% cocoa butter. Cocoa solids refers to the cocoa powder part of the bean only. So, when a bar of chocolate mentions ‘cocoa solids’ on the label, it was made using pre-made cocoa powder mixed with butter and other products.

Is there anything wrong with this? Well no…and yes…

Cocoa butter is much more expensive than cacao powder, so companies often sell the cocoa butter to other industries such as the cosmetic industry. To get the fat they then need to make the chocolate, they add in lesser amounts of cocoa butter as well as milk or—god forbid!—even vegetable oil.

The first ingredient in a Mason & Co chocolate bar is ‘Whole Cacao Beans’, which means exactly this. We remove the shell and use the entire bean to make the chocolate, so you know you are getting all the powder and butter that nature intended.

Cocoa Butter

Cocoa butter is an ingredient in both of the bars, but it important to know that they are there for different reasons.Mass-market: the cocoa butter is added back in to replace part of the butter they removed (remember they removed the butter and started with cocoa solids / powder)Mason & Co:

  1. Because we started with whole cacao beans and did not remove any of the naturally occurring cacao butter in the bean, this is extra cacao butter added to make the chocolate feel nice and creamy on the palate. Only high quality chocolate will do this.

  2. At Mason & Co, we want our chocolate to be robust and have the full flavour of the bean, so we actually make the cacao butter from the same beans we use to make the chocolate, so the chocolate you eat is 100% pure to the farm from where it is sourced. This is very rare in the industry where companies normally cut costs by buying cocoa butter that has been made from lesser quality beans and had the taste neutralised.

Milk Solids

I believe that products should not be misrepresented in their advertising. If there is milk in a chocolate bar, then it really should be advertised as a ‘milk’ or ‘dark milk’ chocolate. Where a dark chocolate uses milk, it may be for taste, but it is more often to lower production costs and increase profit…It’s a lot cheaper than cocoa butter!

Once again, the “solids” mean powder, so this is actually powdered milk (not sure if this makes a difference to anyone).

Emulsifier 442 & 476

E442 is an emulsifier used in chocolate to help prevent the cocoa butter and powder from separating. It also improves the mouth feel and texture of the chocolate (which is the role of cacao butter in higher quality chocolate). It takes 10 times the amount of cacao butter to have the same effect as E442.

So what is it?

E442, commonly identified as soy lecithin on chocolate labels, is usually made from soy (it is often also made from rapeseed oil, which is quite toxic on the body). Some chocolate makers do source non- GMO soy lecithin, however this is becoming increasingly rare.

I am not going to crucify soy lecithin, as it is universally accepted in the chocolate world and is used by some of the best chocolate makers. However, it is worth knowing why it is there: it is a cost-cutting method. Even if a maker goes to the effort to source non-GMO soy lecithin, it is still a refined oil made through a chemical process usually using hexane.

In general the following is the explanation given for E442 from many regulatory websites:

E442: Ammonium phosphatides are a natural carbohydrate alcohol. It is commercially produced either 1) synthetically from propene, 2) by bacterial fermentation of sugars, or 3) by the mixture of glycerol and partial hardened rapeseed oil. Daily Intake: Up to 30 mg/kg body weight. The use of animal fat (incl. pork) can not be completed excluded.

The final reference to animal fat in this excerpt is in reference to methods of obtaining glycerol. If E442 is not made synthetically, then a mixture of glycerol and soy/rapeseed is used. Although most glycerol production comes from industrial manufacturing based on propylene or sugar, it can also be obtained as a by-product of soap made from animal and vegetable fats and oils.

E476, otherwise known as Polyglycerol Polyricinoleate (PGPR), is becoming increasingly popular in low-end commercial chocolate bars as a replacement for cocoa butter. It is once again a profit-making exercise at the cost of the consumer.

So what is E476 exactly?

It is a mixture of polyglycerol and castor oil. As far as I can tell from my research, polyglycerol is a substance that uses acetone-benzene, potassium hydroxide and petroleum in its manufacture.

There is plenty more I could say on this subject (particularly around the results about testing of this product on animals), but I think we have said enough.

Contains added flavour (natural and nature identical flavouring substances)

These ‘nature identical’ flavourings can be found in hundreds of foods and not just chocolate….and they are not natural!

There are over 2000 laboratory produced flavours that no longer have to be individually specified on food labels. They can just be named ‘nature identical flavouring substances’.

For example, the taste of one harvest of cacao beans can be really different to another depending on a number of factors. In the artisan world, we love this and we work with these variations to produce something unique and special. But commercial mass market products look for consistency and long shelf life, and so these added flavours are used.

At Mason & Co, we do not use any emulsifier, flavourings, additives, chemicals or preservatives.

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