THE BLOG
04/24/2007 11:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Like Oil For Chocolate

Apparently, we Americans are too stupid to tell the difference between real chocolate and the cheap, waxy "chocolatey" concoctions that food manufacturers fabricate out of artificial sweeteners, milk substitutes, and partially hydrogenated oils (i.e. those toxic trans fats). Or so the Chocolate Manufacturers Association is hoping.

Real chocolate is made, of course, from cocoa beans. But thanks to global warming, cocoa bean crop yields are dropping as temperatures rise. The specter of parched cocoa plantations has sent the cost of cocoa beans up about 28% in recent months.

So the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, whose members include Hershey, Nestlé, and Archer Daniels Midland, are lobbying the FDA to change the legal definition of chocolate to let them substitute cheap vegetable oils for cocoa butter.

But vegetable oils and cocoa butter are two entirely different ingredients. As Brad Kinstler, the CEO of See's Candies (one of Warren Bufffet's tastier acquisitions), told Bloomberg News, "If the margarine manufacturers could call their product butter instead of being required to call it margarine, wouldn't it strike the consumer as being odd?''

Yes, and it would strike this consumer as another egregious example of Big Food's utter contempt for the American public. The "citizens' petition" these multinational corporations have submitted to the FDA presents this proposed redefinition as a boon to consumers. As Hershey's spokesman, Kirk Saville, told Bloomberg News:

"The petition would modernize all food standards, increasing flexibility to accommodate changes in technology. Changes, if adopted, would provide the flexibility to make changes based on consumer taste preference, ingredient costs and availability, and shelf life.''

Ah yes, "flexibility"--i.e., the option to use cheap, toxic trans fats instead of antioxidant rich cocoa butter. As today's NY Times notes, "Eating dark chocolate may be almost as effective at lowering blood pressure as taking the most common antihypertensive drugs." The fat found in cocoa butter is, like olive oil, one of the "good" fats.

The partially hydrogenated oils the Chocolate Manufacturers Association wants to substitute, on the other hand, constitute a known health hazard. But Hershey, Nestle et al insist that Americans don't actually care what goes into the food we eat, as Cybele May, founder of candyblog.net, noted in an LA Times op-ed. She cites a passage from the petition:

Consumer expectations still define the basic nature of a food. There are, however, no generally held consumer expectations today concerning the precise technical elements by which commonly recognized, standardized foods are produced. Consumers, therefore, are not likely to have formed expectations as to production methods, aging time or specific ingredients used for technical improvements, including manufacturing efficiencies.

So switching from costly, heart-healthy cocoa butter to artery clogging trans fats constitutes a "technical improvement" or "manufacturing efficiency."

May points out that it's perfectly legal for manufacturers to sell their cheap chocolate flavored confections. They just can't call them "chocolate."

But Big Food insists that cocoa butter and vegetable oils are interchangeable. In theory, this means that if you're trying to butter up your sweetie with a fancy box of chocolate, you could save yourself a few bucks by bucking the Scharffen Berger and springing for the Whitman's Sampler instead.

In actual practice, of course, this could incite a 21st century Valentine's Day Massacre, with hordes of furious females hurtling boxes of bargain basement bonbons at their cheapskate dates. Because nothing says "I'm just not that into you" like a box of crappy, waxy candy.

And nothing says "We work for the corporations, not the consumers" more than the FDA's willingness to consider the merits of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association's petition. As a nostalgic nod to the democracy we once were, the FDA allows the public to provide feedback on these matters, and April 25th, May 25th is the very last day for us to tell the FDA to take its greasy palms off our chocolate.

You can take a catastrophically mismanaged war, tie a ribbon around it and call it a victory for democracy, but it's still a disaster and a defeat. And a box of partially hydrogenated, artificially flavored candy can never be a box of chocolates. It wouldn't even fool Forrest Gump.