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Confectioners sound the alarm to ward off changes in chocolate

Calling all chocoholics. Put down the truffles and power up the PC. It's time to weigh in on a fundamental question: What is chocolate?

Two of California's oldest confectioners, See's Candies and Guittard Chocolate, are battling an attempt to loosen government rules that dictate what ingredients go into the sweet stuff.

Legally, the candy that melts hearts and comforts the broken-hearted is made with cocoa butter and, in the case of milk chocolate, whole milk. But the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group, wants to let confectioners substitute cheaper ingredients: vegetable oils and milk-protein concentrates.

Gary Guittard, president of his family-owned business, sees this as a battle for the soul of the popular confection.

"Anybody who has a passion for chocolate doesn't want to see it adulterated," said Guittard, whose great-grandfather Etienne Guittard founded the company in San Francisco in 1868.

But the trade group, which has the support of the Chocolate Manufacturers of America, says it's thinking outside the old chocolate box. The petition is part of a broad effort to give its members more flexibility in choosing the ingredients that go into many foods.

A spokeswoman said the proposed rules would not prevent companies such as See's and Guittard from adhering to current chocolate standards.

Nevertheless, Guittard and See's Chief Executive Brad Kinstler want chocoholics to complain loudly to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before April 25, when the agency will stop taking public comments on the issue.

It's a big constituency. About one-quarter of Americans eat chocolate at least once every two weeks, according to the market research firm NPD Group. All told, the U.S. consumes 3.6 billion pounds of chocolate annually, about 12 pounds per person.

The chocolatiers have urged lovers of the candy to visit Guittard's DontMessWithOurChocolate.com Web site, where they can electronically submit complaints to the FDA.

Substituting vegetable oil for cocoa butter, a natural component of the cocoa bean that is the traditional source of chocolate, irks Andrea Langston, of Long Beach, Calif.

"I would feel like I was being duped," said Langston, 36, who likes dark organic chocolate. "It's $3.50 a bar, but it is so worth it. You just eat one square at a time."

Langston and other lovers of what the Mayans called the "food of the gods" should be worried about producers substituting oils for cocoa butter, said Kristy Choo, artisan chocolatier of Jin Patisserie in Venice, Calif.

"It will have a waxy taste," said Choo, whose mango-basil, lavender and ginger-cinnamon chocolate squares sell in a six-piece box for $15.

Price is at the heart of the argument over whether manufacturers should be allowed to change the ingredients of chocolate, said Kinstler, of See's, based in South San Francisco.

"You can make chocolate a lot cheaper with vegetable oil," he said.

A pound of chocolate contains more than 4 ounces, or about $2.30 worth, of cocoa butter, according to Guittard, based in Burlingame, Calif. The cost of the same amount of vegetable oil is 70 cents.

Hershey, which supports the Grocery Manufacturers' petition, said the standards were created decades ago and should be "modernized."

By adopting the proposal, the FDA would be providing "flexibility to make changes based on consumer taste preferences, ingredient costs and availability, and shelf life," said Kirk Saville, spokesman for the Hershey, Pa., company. He said it could be "years" before the FDA issues a decision.

The proposed rule change is part of a strategy by Hershey and other large producers to segment the industry, lowering the quality and expense of everyday candy bars while creating high-quality, high-priced premium chocolate, said Marcia Mogelonsky, an analyst with market-research company Mintel International.

"If you take the cocoa butter out of an inexpensive candy bar, most people probably won't notice," she said.

Guittard thinks that in proposing to change the rules, the food industry is overthinking one of life's simple joys: "Why add ingredients to something that is just fine the way it is?"

Source: Seattle Times

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