If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing this article, it’s that packaging is everything. Leave a dish of chocolates with pretty foil wrappers and crinkly paper sleeves on your desk, and everyone walking down the hall stops in for a snack. But set out 16 kinds of plain chocolate chopped into bits on paper plates, and it’s chore to eat. Or at least, some of it is a chore to eat.
Everyone “knows” that European chocolate is good and American chocolate—Hershey’s, to be exact—is bad. But can average Americans really tell the difference, or is this just another example of our natural inferiority complex? Will your sweetie be right to dump you if you buy her or him cheap chocolate for Valentine’s Day? To find out, I talked to some experts and set up a blind taste test, and I give you my results below.
The traditional categories of chocolate (milk, semisweet, and bittersweet) are confusing because many makers use similar terms for very different things. Try comparing Lindt’s “bittersweet” chocolate (a mild, barely bitter taste) with Scharffen Berger’s (extremely bitter) and you’ll see what I mean. And to confuse matters even further, some makers simply label their chocolate “dark.” So I lumped semisweet and bittersweet into one category and used three broad categories: milk, dark, and semisweet (includes some bittersweet). I focused exclusively on chocolate you eat, ignoring the stuff you cook with.
I conducted the taste test in two shifts with a total of 10 participants. I cut the chocolate up into small pieces on numbered paper plates and asked participants to rate the chocolate on a 10-point scale, with 1 as the worst (think Advent calendar chocolate) and 10 as their ideal chocolate. I provided water, bread, and crackers as palate cleansers, and asked them to take their time in writing scores and notes on taste. Nobody knew which chocolates they were tasting. What was most interesting was the fact that consuming a whole bar’s worth of chocolate—when you have to—is tough, and getting through all the samples was tedious. I know, because I was one of the tasters. (Click here to find out more about the demographics of the tasters.)
In the kind of sweet reversal of expectation a shopping columnist always hopes for, tasters consistently rated the cheaper milk chocolates as tasting better than the expensive ones. Even better, the cheapest chocolate received the highest taste score:
Even though milk chocolate is America’s chocolate of choice, the tasters were unimpressed, giving it the lowest scores of all three types, with the average coming in at 3.9. And boy, did they hate the Blanxart chocolate. Here’s a sampling of their venom for it:
“Hello? Flavor? Where are you?”
“Yucky. Kind of an ashy taste.”
“Tastes like cigarette ash … bad after-taste.”
“Headache-inducing … American mass-produced” (more evidence of our chocolate inferiority complex, especially considering the chocolate was from Spain).
Also near the bottom of the list was a “varietal” chocolate. Like wine or coffee, this means the cacao beans used to make the chocolate come from a single location and are not a blend of various beans from all over, the way most other types are made. According to Dana Taylor Davenport, the owner of Seattle’s upscale Dilettane Chocolates, there is a “big move toward single varietal chocolate” in the world of high-fashion chocolates. Though he says this is really something “only the real connoisseur finds interesting,” a local chocolate shop was selling them, so I sneaked them into the mix: Fran’s Caoba Natural. As you can see in the chart, Fran’s did not fare well, with many tasters perplexed and one asking, “Was that really chocolate?”
Dark chocolate did not provide such a tidy inversion, though the most expensive chocolates once again received the lowest taste scores. The group did better than milk chocolates, averaging a 5.48 rating:
*As the tasting progressed, participants became more hyper and jumpy and started missing entries (or writing illegible ones). Starred scores reflect the average of only nine instead of 10 participants’ scores.
Again reactions to the least favorite were strong: The Chocolove was called “caca,” “nasty,” “murky like river water,” and “felt as if I was chewing on a dirty napkin.”
The semisweets ended up as the favorites of the group, with an average score of 5.66. And again, the favorite was the least expensive:
Comments on the favorites: The Valrhona, from France, was “Smooth—lovely taste, bright and buttery—yum. Rich—now, this makes me happy,” “smooth and flavorful,” and so on. The American Dilettante was described in similar terms: “smooth as silk,” “buttery,” and “mild for a dark … tastes like a good hot chocolate.”
And it’s interesting that the taster mentioned hot chocolate, because it is one of the links to chocolate’s past. Originally a cold drink made by the Maya and Aztecs using beans from the cacao plant, chocolate was brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors. (Click here to find out how the name changed from cacao to “chocolate.”) At the time it was the subject of much controversy: Some thought it was a tonic, others thought it dangerous to your health, and pretty much everyone thought it was an aphrodisiac. Eventually chocolate became a part of everyday life. Coffee and chocolate shops sprang up all over the continent, and many were hotbeds of political activism in the 17th century. As processing technology and tastes evolved over time, solid chocolate became the norm, which is where we stand today, though for 90 percent of its history it was a beverage.
The bad-for-you aspect of chocolate has long been part of its allure. Many women report craving chocolate as part of the host of symptoms associated with PMS, but a study revealed that this is an America-only phenomenon. Spanish women craved sweets also, but not necessarily chocolate. The authors of the study concluded that it was the indulgence more than the substance that women wanted. But other studies found different results: that chocolate contains chemicals that do make you feel good, specifically theobromine and caffeine. And now there are studies claiming that chocolate is actually good for you because cacao contains antioxidants that when eaten regularly increase good cholesterol levels.
I’m inclined to agree with the scientists who see social conditioning at work. As one tester wrote at the end of the tasting, “none of these tasted as good as I think chocolate should taste. Maybe it’s context. I know that things taste better coming from a Godiva box.” And there’s the rub: packaging and expectation matter, and the more expensive the chocolate, the better the packaging and the higher the expectations. But I say to hell with the chocolate snobbery: With the wrapper off, the cheap stuff is just as good.