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chocolate buzzwords

by Stephanie Zonis

Buzzwords do not apply merely to fashion or politics. They are a part of the food world as well, and that includes chocolate. Below you’ll find some of the biggest buzzwords in chocolate these days. While many are meaningless, some of these terms do have real substance behind them, and it’s worth being able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Understand that those who employ these buzzwords are, ultimately, trying to sell you something, but that’s not always bad; there are some wonderful chocolate products with these terms on their labels.


Perhaps the sharpest buzzword thorn in my side in recent years, this term conveys an image of a devoted craftsman/craftswoman laboring lovingly over a tiny batch of chocolates. Too bad it’s just an image in many cases! There is no legal definition for the terms “artisan” or “artisanal”; anyone can label their chocolate products this way, and far too many companies do so, including those whose chocolates are obviously mass-produced. (This doesn’t happen only in chocolate. Protestations of “artisanal” have become so absurd that once, when I was talking to an importer of a high-end brand of preserves, a rival brand’s name happened to come up in conversation, and the importer to whom I was speaking immediately declared that the brand of preserves she imported was produced much more artisanally than the rival brand. When I asked what she meant by that, she couldn’t give me a legitimate answer, of course.) Don’t be fooled by the use of these words.



Criollo is one of the three varieties of cacao. Criollo beans are generally considered to have the best flavor of all cacao beans. The problem is that they represent only between 1% and 5 % (there are many varying estimates) of the world’s cacao crop. I’ve seen enough claims for companies using only Criollo beans that I’ve become suspicious about such assertions. 

There are ways to identify the type of bean(s) used in chocolate, but most of them involve scientific testing. There may be some chocolate gurus who can taste a chocolate and tell you what type(s) of beans were used to make it, but I cannot do so, and I know most people are in a similar situation. 


Fair Trade/Fairly Traded/Direct Trade

Now things are really going to become confusing. The words “Fair Trade”, with any kind of certification or trademark involved, indicate that a product conforms to the standards of one of several certifying agencies; the one most Americans know is Fair Trade USA (you’ll see a Fair Trade Certified ™ logo on the product’s label).

According to a 2008 article in Mother Earth News, , “Fair Trade is a designation developed to help consumers support products that come from farms that have been certified to provide fair wages and safe working conditions (forced child labor is prohibited). In addition, producers on certified farms are paid a premium to apply to projects such as healthcare, women’s leadership initiatives and micro-finance programs, as voted on by the farmers and workers themselves.

Fair Trade Certified also ensures that farmers obey internationally monitored environmental standards, while empowering farmers and farm workers with financial incentives and resources for organic conversion, reforestation, water conservation and environmental education.”

Well, you’re thinking, who could possibly object to that? Turns out that any number of people and groups can, and do. First off, there’s been some argument within the fair trade community itself. Fair Trade USA (formerly Transfair USA) split from Fairtrade International (formerly    Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (FLO) International) in the fall of 2011. According to an article at www.triplepundit.com, FLO certifies only small farmers grouped into cooperatives. Fair Trade USA “believes that Fair Trade has to work for all kinds of producers to make a meaningful dent in global poverty.

“In its current form, Fair Trade principles are applied inconsistently. For some product categories, like coffee, Fair Trade certification is limited to cooperatives, while in other categories, like bananas and tea, workers on large farms can become certified.” (To see the TriplePundit.com article in full, click here: http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/01/fair-trade-all-fair-trade-usa-plans-double-impact-2015/ ). As a result of the split, Fair Trade USA has its own standards (which differ significantly) and a separate labeling system.

There’s also a considerable amount of debate regarding whether impoverished farmers and poor communities genuinely benefit from this program. For an excellent article on this topic, click here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/fairtrade-is-it-really-fair-7717624.html. That matters, because Fair Trade is very big business. In July of 2012, FLO, the dominant certifier worldwide, announced that consumers in over 120 countries had spent around $6.6 billion (that’s “billion”, with a “b”) on Fair Trade products in 2011. Think about it---$6.6 billion on products certified by just one organization. With that amount of money changing hands, it would be nice if those whose lives are supposed to improve due to this program really were better off.

Do not confuse fair trade certification with the terms “fairly traded” or “direct trade”. Fairly traded and direct trade items do not have certification from a Fair Trade organization. Does that mean that the producers of these items are just trying to cash in on the good name of certified products? Not necessarily. There are some individuals who don’t like the certification system for one reason or another. “Fairly traded” crops still go through middlemen, but in theory, the farmers growing the crops are paid a living wage, consider the impact of their agriculture on the environment, etc. 

In some cases, people prefer to establish direct relationships (hence the name “direct trade”) with growers. As with fairly traded products, farmers don’t have to pay for certification (which is quite expensive) or wait to be certified or have their farms inspected (which can take a long time). In addition, farmers sometimes receive prices for their crops which are higher than the prices set by fair trade groups. Those who have fairly traded/direct trade relationships (the two are not always synonymous) feel they can get products geared specifically toward their needs, while still seeing that the farmers manage their crops sustainably and increase their standard of living. Tom Pedersen, of Cocoa Puro (www.cocoapuro.com) is such a chocolatier. He notes, “We…buy our beans direct…the farmer doesn’t need to pay for certification or hassle with anyone. He can stick to producing great beans, for which I pay him two or more times the market rate. He’s happy, our customers are happy, and we’re happy to get great beans.”

If you’re a chocolatier and think direct trade sounds like the way to go, note that direct relationships with growers do not always work out well! Mr. Pedersen established what he thought was a good working relationship with a grower, even traveling to the grower’s country to purchase and import his cacao beans. The following year, after agreeing to another deal, the grower disappeared without explanation, never returning Mr. Pedersen’s multiple calls or e-mails.


Gluten Free

Gluten is a current dietary villain. I recognize that there are individuals who have legitimate, serious issues with consuming gluten, but most people do not need to eat a gluten-free diet, period. Since gluten is a wheat protein, ask yourself this: what would significant quantities of a wheat protein be doing in chocolate in the first place? I don’t know why anyone would have their chocolates certified gluten-free, except as a marketing tool. If gluten is in a chocolate product, surely the list of ingredients on the package, and the statement “Contains wheat” or “Contains wheat ingredients” should be enough?


Handmade/Made by Hand/Hand Crafted

There’s no legal definition for these terms in chocolate, either, but it’s important to realize that any bar chocolate wouldn’t be widely available (in many cases, it wouldn’t exist) without the use of a lot of machinery. And ultimately, it is from bar chocolate that spring forth the various truffles, bonbons, chips, and other goodies we all love so much.

Beyond the basics, you also have to decide how far the “handmade” designation should extend. Are Brand X chocolates “handmade” if they use a machine to temper their chocolate? You can certainly temper chocolate by hand, but without machinery, the volume of chocolate that can be tempered will be much less, and chocolate is a very persnickety material in the first place. Are chocolate chip cookies “handmade” if an electric mixer is used for the dough? What if a mixer is used to blend the dough, but the dough is then scooped by hand into individual cookies? You can see how quickly this becomes complicated.

Again, it’s not hard to grasp why these terms are used. They convey an image of craftsmanship and loving care. But in terms of production, when you’re in business trying to fill wholesale orders and still attempting to have product remaining for retail customers, even in the case of a high-quality chocolate product, how much “handmade” is possible or realistic? How much affects the quality of the end product? I don’t think there are any easy answers here.


Natural/All Natural

The FDA notes that “…The term "natural" applies broadly to foods that are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives; artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and other artificial additives; growth hormones; antibiotics; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers. Most foods labeled “natural” are not subject to government controls beyond the regulations and health codes that apply to all foods.” There are exceptions for meat and poultry, but not for plant foods such as cacao.

The FDA also says this about the subject: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

In other words, the terms “natural” or “all natural” are a grey area as applied to most foods (including chocolate and chocolate products), and there’s not really any governmental oversight.


Only the Finest Ingredients

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen this phrase in print, I’d be able to retire, immediately, a wealthy woman. Plenty of chocolate businesses claim they use only Belgian chocolate---and I’m sure they do, but unfortunately not all Belgian chocolate is of good quality. There is cheap Belgian chocolate that uses vegetable fat other than cocoa butter. That’s lesser quality stuff, no matter where it’s made. I don’t consider it real chocolate, and it’s a shame that the European Union does (see Pure). But recognize that there’s no set of conditions to which a product must adhere to “earn” these words; it’s pure advertising jargon.


Organic/Made with Organic Ingredients/Ingredients Grown and Processed in an Organic Manner

These three terms are not interchangeable! If a food product made in the US is certified organic, it must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. A food (including anything chocolate) can bear the legend “Made With Organic Ingredients” if it contains at least 70% organic ingredients (the remaining 30% of ingredients are subject to restrictions, including no GMO’s (genetically-modified organisms)). However, many people feel that the term “organic” has been hijacked by large corporations, and certification is very costly, must be renewed annually, and can take a long time to get. So it’s not uncommon to see a chocolate product containing ingredients that were “grown and processed in an organic manner”. In theory, this means that ingredients were grown and processed using similar or identical restrictions to those placed on foods certified organic; it’s merely that the producer doesn’t have the certification. I say “in theory” because you must take the producer’s word for it. There is no independent, third-party certification, but some people feel that certifying bodies also favor agribusiness, so this doesn’t concern them.    



Is your chocolate pure? Do you know what it means when a chocolatier or chocolate manufacturer claims that their chocolates (of any type) are pure? No? Neither do I. In fact, “pure” is yet another meaningless marketing term, one without a legal definition in the US. Naturally, that hasn’t stopped anyone from labeling their chocolate as “pure”. Of course this word is beloved by its users; it implies that the chocolate under consideration is wholesome and free from any adulterants. It might even make you question what’s in other chocolates (if this chocolate is “pure”, what have I been eating when consuming chocolate not labeled “pure”?). But it’s all implication, at least in America.

Matters are different elsewhere, or used to be. In 2003, the Italian Parliament passed legislation defining “pure” chocolate; such chocolate had to contain 100% cocoa butter. This meant no other vegetable fats, though chocolate containing the emulsifier soy lecithin (and natural flavorings) could also be labeled as “pure”. All chocolate products that contained other vegetable fats had to be labeled as a “chocolate substitute”, even if they contained some cocoa butter. Would that Congress in the US had such wisdom! Sadly, in 2010, the high court of the European Union (EU), of which Italy is a member, overturned this law, after the EU sued Italy in a move I consider unbelievably stupid. Under EU law, a product can claim to be chocolate even if it’s made with vegetable fats other than cocoa butter, although all different types of fats must appear in the list of ingredients. And if it's made with vegetable oils, the front of the package also needs to say, "Contains vegetable fats in addition to cocoa butter." I don’t understand why anyone would jeopardize the gold standard (real chocolate, made only with cocoa butter) by allowing inferior-quality stuff made with other vegetable oils to parade under the same name. In any case, “pure” chocolate exists solely in the mind of the advertiser.



There is no legal definition for “raw” chocolate in the US, or indeed, for any “raw” food. There’s not even consensus on the maximum permissible temperature for “raw” food. Anyone can process cacao beans by any means they choose and still label the resulting chocolate “raw”. Somehow, “raw” chocolate is perceived as being healthier. For more information on this, see my article “The Truth about Raw Chocolate”, located in the archives of this column.


Sustainable/Produced Sustainably

The US government has formulated a legal definition for sustainable agriculture. It is as follows: “The term ''sustainable agriculture'' (U.S. Code Title 7, Section 3103) means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long-term:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends.
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

So far, so good. But how do you prove any of this? You can make the choice to become certified sustainable. There are multiple certifying agencies within the US; the one most people would know is the Rainforest Alliance, which has two categories. One is a Certified Seal, which “is awarded to farms and forestlands that meet the rigorous, third-party standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network or the Forest Stewardship Council.” (The other, a mark of verification, is given to forest carbon, tourism, and some forestry enterprises/projects.) 

As is the case with non-certified “organically-produced” or “fairly traded” products, some producers or manufacturers state that their chocolate is produced in a sustainable fashion without the certification. Consumers must take the word of the producer/manufacturer that this is so, but lack of certification doesn’t bother everyone.



I believe that several of these buzzwords are connected with what should be important first steps in alleviating poverty, environmental degradation, and the like. However, it is difficult to know if being a so-called “conscious consumer” is really doing any good these days. Certifying agencies want you to believe that it is, and they have “report cards” that assure you their programs are benefitting communities and the planet. Not everyone agrees with these analyses; other groups have reports demonstrating minimal, if any, positive outcomes for the people and regions the programs are supposed to be helping.

Further, the hype and confusion surrounding terminology don’t help consumers. I have no problem telling you that the research I did for this article made my head spin. Claims, counterclaims, different standards for different certifiers within one realm, lack of legal definitions. None of this is going to help even the most conscientious consumer. Are some of these buzzwords designed simply to soothe the consciences of members of wealthy societies enjoying luxuries produced or grown by members of poor societies? If you want to discover whether the buzzwords which attract you are truly meaningful, be aware that you’ll have to do your own investigating.


Additional Sources







Diana Ortiz, Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org), personal communication

Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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