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Warmth, coziness and that fuzzy feeling are some of things that we associate with “Hot Chocolate”.  It is interesting to note that chocolate in liquid form is how it was first consumed – by the ancient Aztecs. Of course, much has changed since then and the chocolate drinks of today are far away from the ways of the ancient Aztecs.

Today there is a wide range of hot / drinking chocolates available in the market and the preparation has been so simplified that it is almost effortless to fix yourself a cup. One simply has to open the packet, mix the powder in warm milk and there you have it, an instant as well as “insta-ready” cup of hot chocolate. Owing to their easy access and convenience, these kinds of hot / drinking chocolates seem like a perfect fix on a cold day. But have you wondered what is in your cup of hot chocolate? In the times that we live in, convenience often takes precedence over quality and while there is nothing wrong with it, being informed can help in making better choices.

We believe that good ingredients are the foundation of a great chocolate and that’s what this article is all about. In order to explain what a good hot/ drinking chocolate is, we decided to check the ingredients of several hot / drinking chocolates available in the market. This, we hope, will help you in seeing through mere claims and go for a hot/ drinking chocolate that truly celebrates its origins – the cacao and its flavors. The intention of this article is not to criticize other brands, but to provide more information. For this reason, we have not revealed the brand identity and have only listed the ingredients.

The popular hot chocolate

So, to begin with, let’s consider one of the most popular “Hot chocolate”. It is available in all supermarkets and shops near you. It comes in powder form and is easy to make by simply mixing it in warm milk. Now let’s turn around the box and read the list of ingredients.

Industrial hot chocolate ingredients

Sugar

Sugar, our dear friend with which we share a love hate relationship needs no introduction. But it is quite likely that at the least 50% to 65% of this hot chocolate powder is sugar. We know this because the next ingredient which is the Cocoa Powder comprises only 30% of the product and the next two ingredients, i.e., flavoring substances are generally so concentrated that a small quantity goes a long way. For instance, as per the FSSAI standards, 1 gm of artificial vanilla flavouring is permitted to be added per 1 kg of cocoa powder or chocolates. So, clearly this hot chocolate’s dominant ingredient is sugar and not cocoa / chocolate. The next ingredient that we see on the list is the Cocoa Powder. This is partly what lends the drink its chocolate flavor. We say partly because let’s not forget the last ingredient in the list – “flavoring substances”. A rather wide and vague term which provides no assistance in understanding the exact nature of the ingredient. But for now, let us focus on the Cocoa Powder – what it means and how it is made.

Cocoa powder

Understanding Cocoa Powder will require us to go a few steps back into the processing of the cacao beans. We have written a detailed post on the journey of cacao from farm to bar.  But for the sake of this article, here is a short explanation of the process. Cacao beans are derived from the Cacao fruit and after their extraction from the fruit, they undergo a process of fermentation and drying. Once dried, they are cleaned, sorted and their husk is removed. What remains after, is the cocoa nibs. These nibs are then conched/ ground, which converts them into a smooth paste which is called “Chocolate Liquor” or “Cocoa Liquor”. Here liquor simply means “liquid” which is an older connotation of the word and does not bear any reference to alcohol or alcoholic fermentation and distillation.  This chocolate liquor is made up of cacao solids and cacao butter in almost equal proportion. At this stage, most manufacturers separate the two and the cocoa butter is supplied to pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry at profitable rates. What remain after that are the cocoa solids which are pressed and ground and, in most cases, also go through what is known as “the Dutch Process” – a process in which the cocoa powder is washed using Potassium Carbonate to remove its acidity (bring it to a neutral ph).  In the end, what you get is the “cocoa powder” we see listed amongst the ingredients of numerous chocolate products which has a less intense flavour and easy solubility into liquids. The cocoa powder however, has minuscule quantity of cocoa butter in it. Whereas, it is the same cocoa butter which lends any chocolate product its rich mouthfeel, roundness, texture and creating an overall brilliant chocolate experience. Devoid of cocoa butter, the cocoa solids or cocoa powder lack richness and cannot lend the desired consistency and thickness to a chocolate drink.

In the case of this popular hot chocolate brand, there is no mention of any thickening agents. As per the packet instructions, this hot chocolate powder is to be mixed with milk. So, we believe, the thickness of the drink will depend on the quality of the milk.

Artificial Vanilla, Flavouring substances

Now let’s come to the last ingredients on the list – Artificial vanilla and flavoring substances. Any artificial flavoring in food is created by synthesizing chemicals. The vanilla flavor is obtained from using synthetic vanillin which could be derived from multiple sources including petrochemical raw material. The other flavoring substances mentioned, are also chemicals and synthetics but companies rarely disclose their chemical names. These flavoring agents could be a host of chemicals used as sweeteners, anti-caking agents, emulsifiers etc.  Hence, the only source of this information is the FSSAI guidelines which provide a list of permitted artificial flavoring agents. There are several artificial flavors permitted by FSSAI in “chocolate milk” and chocolate products, for instance, esters, which are used to provide fruity flavours to food. There are a host of sweetening agents that are permitted in food and chocolates like sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol etc. While these sweeteners are permitted to be added to food, there have been studies that continued intake of some of them can negatively impact the gut and can have other long term health issues. It is in fact a matter of great concern that despite these sweeteners now being ubiquitous, the existing research is insufficient to fully understand their interaction with human digestive and other systems. In our opinion, it is best to approach them with caution even though their calorie count is much lower and instead, consume food which is fresh and natural.

So, what we gather from all of the above is that this “hot chocolate” is barely any chocolate and has a whole lot of other ingredients and is created to mostly imitate the chocolate flavor. But this product can in no way match up to an authentic, pure chocolate product because the latter is always going to be more nuanced, owing to all the flavors present in natural chocolate.

The Artisanal brands

Now there are many artisanal brands also in the market that have introduced hot chocolate mixes. No doubt, these products in most cases are far superior than the likes of the product that we discussed above. At the same time, these products are also priced much higher as compared to the mass-produced brands. So, it is all the more important to understand the ingredients and then make a choice. For the purpose of this article, we checked the ingredient lists of some of the artisanal brands and here is what we saw:

Artisanal brand 1

Ingredients in a generic Artisanal hot chocolate

Now, this product as compared to the popular hot chocolate drink we just discussed, has fewer ingredients and there are no artificial flavors. The first ingredient is Cocoa. It is rather unclear whether it is pure cocoa / cocoa mass (where the cocoa butter has not been separated) or cocoa solids. The information provided in insufficient to verify this. But another ingredient may help us in understanding this better – Cornstarch.

Cornstarch

Cornstarch is a thickening agent and is used across food industry to lend bulk and texture to food. It is a convenient and cost-effective ingredient as a small quantity of it goes a long way and eliminates the need of adding more natural ingredients and thickeners thereby cutting costs.
We believe that the fact that this product requires cornstarch is for the sole reason that the cocoa as mentioned here is not pure cocoa and is in fact cocoa solids. A hot / drinking chocolate made of pure cocoa would not require any bulking or thickening agent as the cocoa butter naturally present would lend all the beautiful texture and mouthfeel to the drink.

Artisanal brand 2

Ingredients in a generic artisanal hot chocolate
Cocoa Solids

This hot chocolate mix comes from a rather elite brand, considered premium in India for confectionaries and desserts. From what we have observed in the case of product 1 can be applied here as well. Since this product uses cocoa solids which have been separated from cocoa butter, it requires addition of multiple thickening agents, viz. soy lecithin and guar gum as well as additional cocoa butter. That’s just too many ingredients!

Milk Solids

The next item on the list is Milk Solids, which as the name suggests is dry milk or milk powder that is left when the water is evaporated from milk. The preparation instructions on the package state that this hot chocolate mix is to be added to warm milk. Since the mix was created for a milk based hot / drinking chocolate, we believe that milk solids have been added only to add to the mouthfeel of the product.

Belgian Dark chocolate

The percentage of Belgian Dark Chocolate in this product is 16.7%. Now, this Belgian Dark chocolate in turn consists of cocoa mass – making for 54.5% of the Belgian Chocolate. The rest 45.5% of the Belgian Chocolate is sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin.   Cocoa Mass as discussed earlier refers to pure cocoa and it’s a matter of simple math that pure cocoa or cocoa mass makes up for only 8% of the entire product (54.5% of 16.7% of Belgian Dark Chocolate). The Rest of the Product is sugar, cocoa powder and emulsifiers and thickeners.

Soy Lecithin

This is yet another ingredient in the Belgian Dark Chocolate, that we ought to address, even if briefly. Lecithin is the generic term used for a group of fatty substances that attract both water and fat. It lowers the surface tension between liquids which allows them to spread and combine quicker. In simpler words, it does 2 things – first acts as a glue to bind both water and fat and second it brings 2 liquids with different properties together as one, thus making it easier to handle. Lecithin is found in almost all packaged foods that have a high percentage of fat in it. Soy lecithin which is the most common form on lecithin is almost always genetically modified. Moreover, it is extracted using harmful chemicals and then bleached to an acceptable yellow colour. Any kind of lecithin makes the entire process of chocolate making easier. But it also takes away from the chocolate its rich texture and leaves it feeling slightly unpleasant and “waxy” on the palate. It also flattens the beautiful flavours and suppresses the subtle aromas that exist in the chocolate. So, even if the lecithin used in the chocolate is manufactured and sourced ethically, it will still take away some of the beauty of the chocolate. We have written a detailed article on Lecithin on our blog, which you can read here.

Coffee

Coffee! We love it. While we may not add anything to our drinking cacao, we quite approve of adding a small amount of coffee to any chocolate dish be it hot/drinking chocolate, chocolate cake, cookies, brownies etc. as a little coffee is known to enhance the flavour of cocoa.

Guar gum

The last ingredient on the list is also known as vegetable gum and is obtained from guar beans (a common vegetable in Indian households). It is used as a thickening and stabilizing agent. While Guar Gum is a natural gum and does not seem to have any harmful effects, at Oona, we believe that a great chocolate is the one without any external emulsifiers, thickeners, stabilizers etc. as at the end of the day, even if these ingredients are derived from natural sources, their addition is sure to compromise the overall experience of the chocolate.

Artisanal brand 3

Ingredients in a generic artisanal hot chocolate

This product is all the rage on social media and is being called the “real” and “authentic” hot chocolate. But like the previous product, we have only one thing to say – Too many ingredients!! We have discussed most of the ingredients while considering the previous products. But we will leave it with one observation. While poring over ingredients of many hot / drinking chocolates, we have noted that these products are being marketed as premium and pure. Sure, these products don’t have any added flavors. But the content of pure cocoa or cocoa mass is still compromised in these products and the lack of it is being made up by agents like lecithin, cornstarch etc. For instance, in this product, the pure cocoa or cocoa liquor is actually an ingredient of an ingredient, thereby forming only a small portion of the product. Further, these products lack the transparency as regards the source of their Cocoa, which leaves many questions regarding quality and ethics unanswered. We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to check the ingredients and to question if the product is really what it claims to be and deserves the price it asks for.

Artisanal brand 4

Ingredients in a generic artisanal hot chocolate

 Now this product has one of those labels that can be hard to read and hard to understand and that if you believe us, is a sign that maybe you should put it back on the shelf. But let us try and decode this label. The INS numbers that you see here are short for International Numbering System for Food Additives.It is a European system for easy and short identification for long chemical names of additives. When we refer to the INS numbers provided here, we find that they refer to the following additives:

  • INS 415 – Xanthan Gum: It is a commonly used thickener and found in many packaged foods as well as items of personal care. It is entirely manufactured by fermenting sugar with a specific bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris. In some people, this ingredient may lead to digestive issues, bloating, impact on gut bacteria etc.
  • INS 407 – Carrageenan: Again, a common thickener used in packaged product, it is derived from a plant called red seaweed also known as British Moss or Irish Moss. This ingredient since past many years has remained controversial. There have been conflicting opinions about it, wherein one set of scientists and researchers have presented evidence that this ingredient could be directly linked to ailments like irritable bowel syndrome, colon cancer, Rheumatoid arthritis etc. and the other set has refuted the claims and have argued that it is completely safe for consumption. The fact is that most of these chemicals, though permitted in food lack sufficient research on human body.
  • INS 466 – Cellulose Gum: It is derived from the cellulose which is present in the cell walls of plants. Many times, this ingredient can be pushed by food companies as a fiber and is often found in “diet food”. But typically, it is an emulsifier, stabilizer and thickener. It also adds viscosity to food.
  • INS 322 – Lecithin: We have already discussed this above.
  • Maltodextrin: It is an additive used to improve the shelf life of a product. It can also be used as flavor enhancer and thickener. While this additive is plant derived, it undergoes heavy processing to be made into the additive that is eventually used in packaged food. This ingredient could also lead to spike in blood sugar levels.
  • INS 300 – Ascorbic Acid: It is, as also as stated in the ingredient list, an antioxidant. Ascorbic Acid is essentially Vitamin C and present in fruits and vegetables. The main role of antioxidant additives in food is to slow down or stop the process of oxidation of fat which we commonly understand as rancidity.
  • INS 330 – Citric Acid: Acidity regulators have multiple roles to play in food. They are generally used to maintain Ph levels of food and also prevent sugar from crystallizing.

Now, while looking up this product, we noticed one thing that many brands may be indulging in, which is not listing their entire ingredient list on their shop page. Instead, they add multiple pictures of the product, one of which will be of the back of the packet, disclosing the actual ingredient list. This is a practice is less transparent and could be misleading to the customers. In cases like this, it becomes all the more essential that one checks the complete ingredient list.

Now coming to the product itself. This product does make some claim of purity. But, to our surprise, the actual cocoa solids content in this product is even less than the mass – produced popular brand we considered first. Also, the long list of additives leaves us a bit jaded.

While one may argue that all these additives are safe for consumption and are required to maintain the quality and shelf life of food, we are of the opinion that today the consumption of packaged food has become so high and indirectly we are consuming these additives in such large quantities that none of the researches of the past is sufficient to verify their actual impact on human systems of digestion, respiration, gut etc. So, we believe that any time you buy food, go by the principle of less is more and better still, try to stick to food that is natural and fresh as far as possible.

We have already covered about how when any chocolate is made with pure cocoa derived from cacao trees and fruits that were given the love and nourishment they deserve, then there is absolutely no requirement to add stabilizers and thickeners. Similarly, if a chocolate product is made using pure cacao, the right technique and is stored well, it will last for a very long time.

 We, therefore, find it rather unnecessary to include additives like anti-oxidants and acidity regulators to chocolate / chocolate products.

It is a 100% possible to make chocolate without any additives and still have a product that is both good quality and tastes delicious. So, let’s never forget “LESS IS MORE”.

Artisanal brand 5

Ingredients in a generic artisanal hot chocolate

This product has ingredients better than any of the products we have considered so far. The effort to keep the product good quality and natural can be seen. For instance, Cocoa Mass (pure cocoa) has been used and not cocoa solids. The cocoa powder used has 100% high fat content. Further the website does provide some transparency about the sourcing of the cacao.

The only additive to the hot chocolate is Pectin. It is a plant derived thickener and glazing agent and is common in jams, jellies, marmalades, spreads etc. While, as mentioned above, there is no requirement of adding any thickening agent to a hot/drinking chocolate made from pure cocoa mass, we understand that most brands including the premium, artisanal ones do it for a multitude of reasons like improving the look, texture, mouthfeel of the product, to achieve cost effectiveness, for improvement of shelf life of the product etc. But a good chocolate / drinking chocolate need none of these.

While we could go on and on about so many different products available in the market and express our woes over additives and flavorings, we are sure that by now you have got the point. So, what’s the kind of product that we would approve of? We believe that a cacao bean that has been tended to well at all the stages of its journey starting from the tree itself, will lend all the flavor and richness to the final product made out of it, be it a bar of chocolate or drinking chocolate. So, we appreciate any hot / drinking chocolate that has not more than three ingredients and which comes from a brand that provides transparency regarding sourcing of the ingredients.

Oona’s Cacao

Now, let’s talk about something that we have been waiting for! Oona’s Cacao.

The name

Let’s address first things first – the name. We don’t call it “hot chocolate” or “drinking chocolate” because if we did, we would be doing disservice to this beautiful cacao drink which is created using the best single origin cacao beans in India, sourced from an estate in Tamil Nadu. In everything that we create, we celebrate the natural flavours of the ingredients and that is exactly what we wanted our Drinking Cacao to also reflect.

The philosophy

We also took our philosophy of less is more and created the Cacao with the least number of ingredients possible – i.e., exact 1 ingredient – Pure Cacao beans. There are several reasons for it. The first and foremost being that a bean so brilliantly flavorful does not require any other ingredient and the second reason being we wanted to create a versatile product, which everyone could customize as per their likings and needs. For instance, since the Cacao does not have any sugar, people who prefer a pure, unsweetened cacao drink can have it without having to consume unwanted sugar. At the same time, people who wish to have a sweetened drink can add sugar or other sweeteners like jaggery, khandsari sugar, coconut sugar, date palm sugar, stevia etc. as per their preference. Further, there is no end to the aromatics one could add to it. Some that go extremely well with our drinking cacao are spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise and herbs like mint, rosemary etc.

Packaging & preparation

Coming to its packaging and preparation. We did not go down the path of having a drinking cacao powder in plastic packet or for that matter even a glass bottle in order to minimize the packaging, thereby minimizing waste. Our drinking cacao comes in the form of a beautiful, shining disc of pure cacao, which you can cut or grate as per the package instructions and add it in milk, mylk, water or a combination of these. Sure, you may say that it is not as convenient as one of those open and mix packages. But that is by intention and design. At Oona, we celebrate food and we like to take our time with it. Our Cacao was created to experience the joy of creating something delicious for yourself and your loved ones. It was made to get creative with and to have fun with and most importantly to make it the way you would like it.

That’s the way we like our products to be!

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