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The transformational innovation of white chocolate

White chocolate is the baby brother of modern chocolate and was first introduced by Nestlé in 1930, 51 years after Lindt’s breakthrough that enabled the production of smooth, dark chocolate as we know it today. The baby brother is also the most under-represented among its older siblings. But why? Why is white chocolate lagging behind?

White chocolate contains, in its very basic form, three ingredients: cacao butter, milk powder, and sugar. The creamy colour of white chocolate is a result of separating the cacao solids from the fat, making cacao butter on the one hand and cacao powder on the other. White chocolate is considered by many to be cheap, low-quality, and overly sweet. Others don’t even regard it to be chocolate; in France, for example, the law defines white chocolate as ‘white mass’. Its bad reputation partially comes from the fact that dark chocolate is seen by many as the healthiest, since it contains large amounts of anti-oxidants and an array of health benefits.

Linden’s white chocolate mini-pods. Reduced sugar and rainbow colours

The ‘bean to bar’ revolution started in the US about 20 years ago and gave rise to a new era of upmarket dark chocolate, made with high-quality cacao beans, with a meticulous roasting profile, from a careful grinding process. For years, dark chocolate was almost the only player in the small-batch chocolate market. In her book, ‘Bean to Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution’, Megan Giller describes the transformation to high-percentage milk chocolate (aka dark milk chocolate) by some chocolate makers trying to diversify from the mainstream dark chocolate. White chocolate, however, remains quite rare.

When I started my chocolate journey a good few years ago, I remember playing with different flavours of ganache (a careful mixture of chocolate and cream) and, guess what? Only a handful of recipes I created were dedicated to dark chocolate – the vast majority suited milk or white. There is a clear pattern for when to choose white/milk/dark for your creations. Dark chocolate takes the ‘heavy’ stuff, such as strong spices, alcohol, coffee, and sour fruits; whereas white chocolate mixes well with subtle flavours, such as pistachio and coconut. I tried them, and even after diluting them with cream, it was always too sweet for me. But I refused to accept it had to be so.

Following the healthy lifestyle trend of recent years, I have come across reports from the chocolate industry trying to comply with new legislation and meet public demand. In 2018, Nestlé launched its Milkybar Wowsomes range, which contain 30% less sugar without reducing the sweetness [1][2][3]. It has been achieved by creating porous particles of sugar that dissolve quicker in the mouth than regular granules and cause us to perceive the same level of sweetness by changing the speed at which it’s absorbed. I can only assume that this breakthrough was the result of extensive research and development.

For our own range of reduced sugar chocolate, on the other hand, it’s been super straightforward. What I have done is very simple: reduced the level of sugar from ~40% in regular white and milk chocolate to only 16%. That’s a 60% reduction in one easy step. Is it still sweet you might ask? Well, so far, I haven’t had any complaints. On top of that, a few young children who tried our caramel white chocolate were very happy with the level of sweetness. I rest my case. Does it make sense? Yes, it does. According to Portmann [4] , the level of sweetness of sucrose in solution is not linear, but its more complex function depends on more than one variable. Put it simply, 40% sugar is not twice as sweet as 20% sugar, which also means that a 1–2% reduction in sugar can be a difference. Although chocolate is not a chemical solution, this observation makes sense to me.

Sweetness intensity levels of different types of sugars as a function of solution concentration [4], reproduced by [5]

Sugar is cheap, addictive, and always works, which is why it’s in so many foodstuffs nowadays. In order to produce a better chocolate, you don’t need to invest in R&D, you just need to be creative and don’t accept things as they are. You’ll often find that the science supports your findings. I envisage that in a few years’ time, low-sugar white chocolate will flood the market, and I’ve already started to observe some scattered attempts to do this. Don’t forget, you read it here first!

[1] Mintel, “Chocolate Confectionery - UK,” 2017.

[2] Mintel, “Children’s Eating Habits - UK,” 2017.

[3] Mintel, “Nestle uses new technique for 30% less sugar Milkybar.” 2017.

[4] M. Portmann, S. Serghat, and M. Mathlouthi, “Study of some factors affecting intensity / time characteristics of sweetnesst,” Food Chem., vol. 44, pp. 83–92, 1991.

[5] R. A. Clemens et al., “Functionality of Sugars in Foods and Health,” Compr. Rev. Food Sci. Food Saf., vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 433–470, 2016.

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