Here's an honest look at what goes into your chocolates, and how to save money when you buy them.
In the old days, you could pay a $5 note for a chocolate bar and expect change. But look at the chocolates at supermarkets in Singapore these days, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything at that price. It’s no longer uncommon to find chocolate priced at $9, $15, or even - in cases of air-flown, artisanal chocolate - several hundred dollars.
But what exactly are you paying for when you buy chocolate, and is there a way to save money on it? Here’s an honest look:
Craft Chocolate Versus Mass-Market Chocolate
Today, the “chocolate world” is divided into two main groups. There is the craft chocolate market, where you find the pricier products, and mass market chocolate. It’s like the difference between going to a proper restaurant, and getting fast food.
Mass market chocolate is cheap, and often derided by real chocolate connoisseurs. These chocolates are commonly used in candy bars, where the chocolate is mostly overwhelmed by other ingredients.
We don’t want to bad mouth any particular brands - but let’s just say that for chocolate that comes in bars with nuts, fruits, cherries and so forth - the chocolate tends to be of a lower grade. It comes from huge vats geared toward mass production. The loss of quality isn’t noticeable, as most of the flavour comes from sugar, vanilla, or the ingredients in the bar.
A common complaint of chocolate enthusiasts is that people’s tastes have been “spoiled” by mass produced chocolate, which is simply sweet.
On the other hand, craft chocolate focuses on the quality of the beans and the subtle differences in flavour. Chocolate can be nutty, fruity, or even have unusual tastes (like a number 2 pencil, for example). But much like cheese, wine, and meat, people not used to artisanal versions may not find the taste pleasant.
Here’s what you’re really paying for when you buy chocolate, via the conventional terms. These features all add to the final price tag:
- Bean to bar
- Cocoa content
- Fair trade
- Single origin
Bean to Bar
Price impact: Very high, often results in chocolate that costs at least S$15+
If you see the term “bean to bar”, it means the maker of the chocolate controls the entire operation, from sourcing the beans to sending it to a distributor. This is, generally speaking, the purest form of “artisanal chocolate”.
Most mass market-oriented companies only handle part of the operation. For example, some of these companies do not handle the production of the chocolate at all; they just buy it from a supplier, and then use branding and marketing to sell it.
It is expensive for a company to handle every aspect of chocolate production. The company needs to visit various plantations to test the beans, lease or own huge factories and machinery to make the chocolate, and handle the distribution costs all on their own. In a simple sense, it’s akin to a restaurant that also wants to grow its own vegetables, and raise its own animals.
However, chocolate connoisseurs will respect “bean to bar” chocolate as the height of artistry. It takes a dedicated and passionate team to oversee every aspect of the product; the company is treating it it like a work of art, not just a commodity to be sold.
Price impact: High, but only because consumers are easily lied to with high cocoa content
This is what most Singaporeans look out for when working out chocolate quality. The higher the cocoa content, the more chocolate there is. Therefore, the more justified its price.
This is partially true. Most mass produced chocolate bars, for instance, have very low cocoa content. This is because most of the taste is just sugar (pure chocolate is not inherently sweet, and to the layperson tastes bitter as the content rises). As such, high cocoa content is more common in quality, artisanal chocolates.
But it’s not quite that simple. Because coca content is well known, some companies use the term to confuse lay persons. It is not just the quantity of cocoa that matters, but the quality of the beans and how they are prepared. It is possible to have a high cocoa content but bad chocolate. For example, a company could use a mix of cheap beans, that are over-roasted in large vats.
Cheap chocolate with a high cocoa content often has an unpleasant texture. It’s sometimes described as “chalk-like”. It may also have an unpleasant sour aftertaste, similar to what you get from bad coffee. You are better off buying a supermarket chocolate bar than one of these.
Price impact: About 10% to 15% more than an equivalent counterpart
This is not so much about quality, and more about activism. Fair trade chocolate is more expensive, but it ensures the farmers involved are paid better rates. It is a common criticism that the chocolate industry thrives on the back of cheap labour, from developing countries.
The legitimacy of fair trade is often debated, and we don’t have room to cover that in this article. However, the principle of fair trade chocolate is that it allows buyers to reject labour abuses.
Fair trade chocolate is more likely to be quality chocolate. This is because corporations targeting the mass market are inclined to buy from cheaper suppliers.
Price impact: Variable, but often results in chocolate that is 20% more expensive than counterparts
These chocolates are made from organically grown ingredients (primarily the beans). Fertilisers are not used, and extensive studies are made of the soil. For example, the water source used for the beans must not come from chemically tainted rivers or streams.
As with other forms of organic foods, advocates will claim these products are healthier. There is no common consensus on how the organic label affects the taste of chocolate.
In addition, note that not all organic chocolates are significantly more expensive. Some manage to stay quite affordable, due to the manufacturer having efficient supply chains or settling for lower profits.
Price impact: Used to mean the chocolate will be more expensive, but these days there may be no price difference
Single origin chocolate means that the beans are all sourced from the same place. This matters to the taste, as the different weather and soil conditions mean chocolate from various places have a distinctive character. For example, Venezuelan Criollo beans are prized because they lack bitterness.
For mass market chocolates, companies just buy the cheapest beans from anywhere they can get them. The beans are then mixed together, and then over-roasted. Because the chocolate is smothered with sugar, it’s hard to notice the poor taste. It’s somewhat similar to how fast food restaurants overcook beef, in order to hide the cheap cut (this is why no one can order a medium-rare hamburger in a fast food joint).
Over the past two decades however, it has become more common for chocolate companies to “go single origin”. This is largely also because of non-chocolate reasons, such as trade agreements and more efficient distribution. As such, it is now possible to find single origin chocolates that are not much pricier than their counterparts.
Save Money When You Pay with the Right Credit Card
One tip to save money on chocolates is to use the right credit card to earn cashback or points from your purchase. For example, the ANZ Optimum World MasterCard earns you 5% cashback on Dining & Leisure spend - including hotels. So if you're planning to get a fancy box of chocolates from Singapore's hotels, this card can go a long way in helping you save money on it.
If you're planning to buy from an artisanal chocolatier's website, use a credit card like the Standard Chartered SingPost Platinum Visa Card to make the most of your purchase. This card gives you 7% cashback on online purchases, plus 20% off shipping fees on VPost.
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