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What is Vegan Chocolate and Who Makes the Best Bars

Vegans can enjoy the best chocolate
Vegans can enjoy the best chocolate

Last Updated on June 2, 2020 by Nick Baskett

It would be an understatement to say that veganism and the demand for vegan products are growing. Every year, the percentage of vegans in the population keeps on increasing, and it shows no signs of coming down. Of course, this has had a huge impact on the chocolate market. Between new vegan brands marketing their chocolate as “cruelty-free” and big names in the chocolate industry coming up with vegan products, it can be hard to wrap your head around the most recent developments.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the vegan chocolate market and answer these questions: Are all dark chocolates vegan? Is there a milk chocolate vegan equivalent? Who makes the best vegan chocolate in your market and where you can buy their products? Since veganism is associated with ethical practices, we’ll also pay close attention to consumers of vegan chocolate: what do they want? And what else you should look for when choosing vegan chocolate.

Is Dark Chocolate Vegan

The most common question we’re asked by the Vegan community is ‘can I eat dark chocolate as a vegan’? The great news is that the answer is Yes, as long as you check a couple of ingredients!

There are some lower quality dark chocolates that contain small amounts of milk solids, stay away from these. Below there’s a list you can check to make sure you’re getting the right product for you. In the USA, and perhaps some other countries, the sugar may be filtered using bone char. Certified organic, cane, beet or coconut sugars are all Vegan.

In the UK, where I’m based, sugar is not filtered with bone char. The BBC website has an article about this where they say: “You may have heard that regular white sugar is non-vegan because they filter it using bone char – that is, charred and powdered animal bone. BUT you’ll be pleased to know that that really only applies in the US. In the UK, most regular sugar brands are vegan.” You should check in your country what standards apply.

The ingredients to look out for on the wrapper and avoid include:

  • Milk Solids
  • Whey
  • Low cacao content (think less than 50%) as a rule of thumb
  • Butter fat

Read on to discover there’s a delicious world out there where being vegan doesn’t mean making any sacrifices. Whether you’re just starting out on your journey in ethically sourced non-dairy chocolate, or if you’re looking for some new ideas, this is your guide.

Some companies mix their production of dark and milk chocolates, so they should state this on their wrapper. Ritter Sport chocolate, for example, has 50% cocoa solids but states it may contain traces of milk and egg.

Let me be transparent about my own position up front. I am not a Vegan. I grew up on a small farm a long time ago, in a community where not eating meat would have been considered a very odd choice. Back then, there was not the understanding or choice that we have today. I am slowly introducing more vegetarian options into my diet and I’m feeling healthier and plan to continue cutting down on all meat products.

When it comes to chocolate, I suppose this makes me better positioned to evaluate dairy based chocolates against vegan options and make a fair comparison for those interested in achieving a true chocolate experience without the inclusion of dairy. As we’ll see in this article though, true, high-quality chocolate, doesn’t have dairy products in any case.

Dark Chocolate Ingredients – A Comparison

Quality dark chocolate will have only a few ingredients, and typically, the fewer the ingredients, the better the quality. Let’s compare some popular ‘dark chocolates’  against some quality chocolatiers products.

CompanyProductIngredientsVegan?
Ritter Sport74% IntenseFine dark chocolate. Dark chocolate: cocoa solids 74 % minimum. Ingredients: cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter. May contain traces of peanuts, nuts, cereals containing gluten, milk, soya and egg.No
LindtExcellence 70%, DarkCocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla Cocoa solids: 70% min. May contain nuts, milk soya and sesame seedsNo
Green and Black70% Organic DarkCocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla Cocoa solids: 70% min. May contain nuts, milk soya and sesame seedsNo
Tiny HouseTanzania 71%Organic Cacao Beans & Organic Sugar. Nut free, gluten free, dairy free.Yes
Coco ChocolatierColombian Dark61% Single Origin Colombian Cacaoyes

The problem with main branded ‘Dark Chocolates’ is that they’re typically made in a factory that also makes their non-vegan products. So cross-contamination makes them an unsuitable choice, which is a shame because they offer some high quality organic and fairtrade options.

The good news though is that there are plenty of amazing chocolate companies, often small artisan businesses running a ‘bean to bar’ business, and making some of the best tasting chocolate you’ve ever had.

Is Dark Chocolate Healthy?

Yes, actually quality dark chocolate has a lot of proven health benefits and the science from a number of studies are starting to collaborate earlier findings and add to the health benefits. For a detailed description, we wrote about cacao, chocolate and health that goes into more details about the amazing Cacao fruit which should form the largest ingredient for quality chocolate.

The key word is ‘quality’ because taking health cacao and adding palm oil, excessive sugar, butter fats and vegetable oil are the hallmarks of cheaper chocolate which might trade on the name ‘dark chocolate’ to appeal to a consumer who thinks this equates to a healthy choice.

Who is in the vegan chocolate market?

When you hear the phrase “vegan chocolate market”, your first thought might be vegan, organic and sustainable brands. But actually, vegan and non-vegan brands alike are progressing rapidly on the ethical front. So who are the biggest players in the pure vegan space? And what are their products? Here are the biggest, and some of the highly regarded smaller artisan names for the vegan chocolate market:

Great Brands to Try Quality Vegan Chocolate

Alter Eco

One of the things I like about Alter Eco is the level of information they provide and transparency about what is vegan when it might not be vegan and even steps they take to align with this belief. Here is a section from their FAQ

Here is our complete list of plant-based products: Superdark TrufflesDark Sea SaltDark Salted Almonds, Dark BlackoutDark Super BlackoutDark Crisp MintDark Quinoa90% Superdark Crisp MintDouble Chocolate Coconut ClustersOriginal Coconut ClustersCherry + Almond Butter Coconut ClustersSeeds + Salt Coconut ClustersRainbow Quinoa, Pearl QuinoaBlack Quinoa, and Red Quinoa.

Founded by a couple of French citizens living in the US, they had travelled extensively working with NGO’s before founding Alter Eco in San Francisco. Definitely one to check out if you’re driven by a strong ethical approach. The founder’s state:

Our chocolatier produces our chocolate on equipment shared with tree nuts, milk, and soy. Equipment is carefully cleaned between every production run.

Vego

If you just want a tasty snack, products like Vego are becoming more popular.

Vego is a German brand enjoying steady popularity in vegan circles. It is best known for its hazelnut and chocolate bars which can be found on the aisles of many specialist vegan-stores.

In the UK, Holland & Barrett carry these, and my son swears by them.

Raaka

Raaka is a Brooklyn-based artisan vegan chocolate brand. It is representative of a greater trend in the vegan chocolate industry: a pull toward more local, small companies that make “craft” chocolates. With lots of different recipes, it appeals mainly to planet-conscious vegans who want a product that does the planet good.

These guys take their ethics seriously. I learned a few things about the Fair Trade checkmark that I didn’t know, and they are clearly passionate about making unique flavours that left my mouth watering after reading their product page.

I really liked how they put up a chart showing the prices they paid for cacao to the farmers they source from. It needs to be kept up to date, but this kind of transparency builds trust if the ethics of the business behind the bar matters to you.

I couldn’t resist putting up a photo of their Coconut Milk bar, and I challenge you not to want this!

Tiny House

This small company operating out of California caught my eye first because of the name – must be a story there – and then because they were one of the limited vegan chocolate companies that sold vegan white chocolate.

In case you were also wondering, their name comes from a purpose of humility and simple lifestyle. The founders follow and share their passion, which is good news for us because they make some very interesting chocolate flavours. Not living in the US, I’ve not had a chance to try them – I’m waiting for someone to return and stash some in a bag for me.

Vegan white chocolate is possible

Tiny House does not talk about ethical sourcing, which is a shame, but we’ll be reaching out to them to see if they will clarify if that forms part of their approach. However, we celebrate their outlook on life and can’t wait to sample some of their creations.

Equal Exchange

Equal Exchange is another brand specializing in fair trade vegan chocolate, as well as other products like coffee, olive oil and honey. Its name is a direct reference to its manufacturing process, which pays farmers a decent, living wage. Again, Equal Exchange is representative of the trend toward vegan products that are “cruelty-free” in a few different ones: by not exploiting animals, and by not exploiting the farmers who grow the cacao.

Equal Exchange states that their bars contain on a small number of pure ingredients, simply Cacao, Cane Sugar, and Vanilla. All except 2 of their bars are Vegan – the two non-vegan options are the Milk Chocolate with a Hint of Hazelnut, and the 38% Cacao with Organic Caramel Crunch and Sea Salt.

They take their beans from the Dominican Republic, Peru and Ecuador – a fine pedigree of countries, but unfortunately, I couldn’t see what type of beans they used, which is a shame as knowing that information will help true aficionados to understand what flavour profile to expect.

Our rich chocolate products are crafted using the best quality organic cacao (cocoa beans) from the Dominican Republic, Peru and Ecuador. We work with small-scale farmer co-operatives that cultivate this cacao using organic and environmentally sustainable methods.


Our 100g bars do not contain gluten and do not share equipment with gluten. The only ingredient with gluten that is used in the whole facility are cereal crisps, which are isolated, only used in a specific product, and are inserted using a special tool at the end of that product’s production. Our manufacturer frequently tests for gluten, and ppm is always less than 5ppm.

This bar is made with a blend of cacao beans from Peru and the Dominican Republic

Raw Halo

This is a small UK company making really great vegan chocolate options that are accessible and not unaffordable. Let me state upfront that this is one of the favourites that I’ve been able to test in the UK. I’ll explain why – but let’s look at a couple of bars I bought from at my local Supermarket.

70 gr bars that don’t disappoint for flavour or presentation.

Let me explain what I like about this particular chocolate bar, what I also like about the company, and where, in a small way, they could do even better.

I snap off a few squares of the Mylk and Vanilla bar and am pleased with the snappiness of the snapping. It’s a good sign. Then I pop a piece into my mouth and put another in my hand. I try not to chew.

Compared to milk-based chocolate, vegan chocolate often leaves me feeling like it’s the poor substitute. The vegan chocolate I’ve tried in the past can have an almost plasticy and tasteless feel. When I taste this, however, while not perfect, it feels surprisingly good in the mouth.

The Mylk & Vanilla should definitely be on your shopping list

It’s not long before the square in my hand starts to melt as well as the square in my mouth. This is also how it should be. My hand is getting a bit messy, so I pop that square into my mouth as well and give the chocolate a bit of encouragement with my tongue.

The flavours are not overpowering, they are very pleasantly balanced. The texture of the chocolate is not the same as milk-based, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The mouthfeel is pretty good. The taste is very good.

The ingredients for each of their chocolates are listed on their rather pretty website.

“Raw cacao butter*, coconut sugar*, raw cacao powder*, creamed coconut*, lucuma powder*, natural vanilla flavour (0.2%). *Certified organic. Cocoa solids 52% minimum.”

What do the * mean, you wonder? Keep wondering, because they don’t tell you. This is a little peeve of mine, for example where it says “Raw Cacao butter * ” there might be a footnote to say “*not raw, no cacao butter used”. But we’ll never know – unless they update their website.

I enthusiastically repeat the process with the Himalayan Salt bar and find it not quite as good as I was hoping. The saltiness comes through only when chocolate has melted about 50% or if you chew. It would be nice if there was a way to get the full flavour profile from the first taste, but I’m not a chocolatier and I’m not aware of the technical challenges that may be involved in making that happen.

The Himalayan Salt with dark is in fact good. It just felt less special after tasting the Mylk and Vanilla. It has the following ingredients listed:

Raw cacao butter*, raw cacao powder*, coconut sugar*, pink Himalayan salt (0.6%). *Certified organic. Cocoa solids 76% minimum.

So they use 76% Cocoa solids from raw cacao powder – some cacao butter, coconut sugar and a pinch of Himalayan salt and sell it for £3 (under $4USD) at the local supermarket. That’s not bad, and it’s a healthy choice.

If you’re interested in their environmental credentials, they do pretty good here as well. Raw Halo uses no plastic – something chocolate makers in western countries can avoid, but is necessary for bars coming from hot countries where pests can get inside the product otherwise.

The sustainability section of their site focuses on the environment with a commitment to plant a tree for every fifty bars they sell. It’s a nice thing to do, and it would be good if other companies followed their lead in this area.

They do also mention that their mission is to make plant-based products from ethically sourced materials. However, this is where I have a very small gripe. Where other companies go into details about where they get their cacao, and in some cases how much they pay for the beans, there is nothing on the website to evidence this claim of ethically sourcing their ingredients. I’m hoping it’s just an oversite and look forward to updating this page at that time.

Dairy-Intolerant and Vegetarian Options

While Vegan chocolate brands are growing in popularity with a growing, politicised vegan audience, it is still a limited choice compared to the consumer who will accept traces of dairy.

Why is this the case when clearly the evidence points towards pure quality chocolate made with Cacao and Cocoa Butter being more healthy and to many, better tasting? Well, unfortunately, costs is one consideration – a typical bar of quality chocolate will cost €5 for 80 or 100 gr in Europe and about $6-8 in the US. Compare that with the price you’ll pay for a perceived quality bar, like one from Lindt which will set you back about half that amount.

Another reason is that the average consumer taste is still for milky, sugary chocolates, so to manufacture a vegan product alongside those other products invariably mean cross-contamination. That said, many people I know are choosing a Vegan lifestyle for health reasons and are willing to accept traces of animal products in minimal quantities. So what does the market offer here?

Lindt

I confess that Lindt is a go to choice for me at the supermarket, and when researching their vegan status I found conflicting information online. Some vegan sites claim Lindt has confirmed to them that they are suitable because they thoroughly rinse down their machines between production cycles. Yet their own website in the UK says “May contain nuts, milk soya and sesame seeds” on the product page for their 70% Dark range.

They have been a big name in the chocolate market for decades, and I’d be surprised if they were not planning to be in a position where they can say their mainstream products can be claimed as fully vegan in the near future.

Vegan Galaxy? Best of Both Worlds, or Colossal Let Down?

In 2019, ever-popular chocolate brand Galaxy announced that it would be launching a selection of three vegan chocolate bars in flavours caramelized hazelnut, caramel & sea salt, and smooth orange.

Although Galaxy doesn’t specialize in vegan products, it went with packaging that clearly announces the colour for these products: the word Vegan is at centre stage, alongside the official logo of the Vegan Society. Unlike other brands, the vegan chocolate manufactured by Galaxy won’t be dark, it will be similar to their regular sweet and soft milk chocolate, minus the milk, but the devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Just How Vegan is Galaxy?

The back of the label states “May contain: Milk, Cereals containing Gluten and Nuts, This product is made to a vegan recipe but as it is manufactured in a facility that uses Milk it is not suitable for people with a Milk allergy”. Hmm, not what I would expect for a product with the word ‘Vegan’ in big letters across the front. Starting to feel like maybe that’s a marketing ploy.

At a price of £3 (about $4USD) for an unhealthy not
quite vegan product, I’d look at other choices

Does it Taste Good?

I think by now, you know where this is going. The reviews on Tesco are mixed with Five 5 Star reviews and two 1 Star reviews. An inews website reporter bravely ate the bars and reported how the Sea Salt and Caramel chocolate tasted.

Although Galaxy’s new caramel and sea salt vegan chocolate bar tastes a little bit like licking a polyester tracksuit on a hot day, all is not lost.

But It’s Vegan(ish) so at least it’s healthy right?

In a word. No. Here are the ingredients, bearing in mind the largest ingredient comes first. Make up your own mind how you feel:

“Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Hazelnut Paste (14.5%), Dried Rice Syrup, Caramel (8%) (Sugar, Glucose Syrup, Cocoa Butter, Sea Salt, Emulsifier: Sunflower Lecithin), Cocoa Mass, Sea Salt (0.4%), Vanilla Extract, Salt, Couverture Chocolate contains Cocoa Solids (35%) minimum”

Is Hot Chocolate Vegan?

It depends on who you buy it from. Typically, Hot Chocolate is not vegan because it contains milk solids. However, a hot Cacao drink should be vegan (and healthier) because it is processed in a different way. We wrote an article about the many differences between Cacao and Cocoa.

hot cacao is probably vegan, but not hot chocolate

The Best Vegan Chocolate Companies

There can be an obsession to know ‘who is the best’, but the answer will depend on what is important to you and, to an extent, your individual preferences and tastes. However, there is one company that consumers have probably not heard of, but is a heavyweight in the global chocolate industry that is worth mentioning.

Barry Callebout is one of the largest chocolate companies in the world, selling only to businesses that use their chocolate in their own products. Here’s an example, have you heard of Magnum Ice Cream? Of course you have. Barry Callebout, oh, and check out their plant-based ice-cream.

In Europe launches of dairy-free ice creams increased 4 folds between 2014 and 2018

I have a fondness for Barry Callebout that makes me a bit biased. But I love how they continuously innovate (and subsequently give me lots of stories to write about). Their business appears to be doing all the right things, which is much easier said than done for a large company.

For example, they are building a factory dedicated to making vegan chocolate, so there will be no chance of cross contamination. That’s committment. Here’s what they say about it.

“the first facility capable of supplying dairy-free chocolate to the European market, with annual production capacity expected to reach tens of thousands of tonnes.”

They will be building this to produce their own form of plant-based milk alternative called M_lk. I have yet confirmed the way you pronounce this. Could this be a way of evading some law or tax on milk? Like when the singer Prince changed his name to a symbol to get out of a contract with his music label?

Probably not, but I do wonder if the marketing department was out to a long lunch when they thought up the name. (If the marketing department read this, I’d still very much like you to consider sponsorship for the website and obviously we can erase anything that might be considered unfortunately detrimental to the marketing departments highly regarded reputation).

Still, Barry Callebout has an unmatched level of innovation in the industry, launching Ruby Chocolate, Wholefruit Chocolate, a range of vegan options and M_lk in recent years, as well as getting a respectable score in the golden/rotten egg award for ethical practices. If you really want to keep up with new innovation in the vegan chocolate market, keep an eye on what Barry Callebout are doing.

Barry Callebout are a major innovator in chocolate

The evolution of the vegan chocolate market

The vegan chocolate market is evolving rapidly. It is also diversifying quite a bit. Just like there isn’t just one type of consumer who is after vegan chocolate, there is not just one brand model for vegan chocolate manufacturers. Here are a few of the trends which we have observed over recent years:

Vegan Chocolate Brands and Ethical Practices are Aligning

Whereas the first brands to release vegan chocolate onto the market could attract customers by sticking a vegan label on the packaging, this is no longer enough. Vegan consumers know that they have a lot of options for vegan chocolate, and are more likely to choose based on other factors. This is why a lot of the brands that specialize in vegan chocolate are now marketing their products as “organic” and “fairtrade”.

Their products usually come at a higher price-point, which is justified by their overall “ethical nature”. They also tend to attract a more mature, educated and politicized audience.

Vegan Manufacturers Create New Products that Replicate the Taste of Milk Chocolate.

With the rapid growth of veganism, chocolate manufacturers worldwide have started thinking up alternative vegan recipes for their products. This is how Galaxy was able to come up with its vegan chocolate bars as they stated their aim was to replicate the unique taste of the Galaxy bar in a Vegan-friendly way. It’s a matter of opinion how well they succeeded, but it points to the importance manufacturers are now placing on the vegan market.

With these products, companies know that they won’t sell their products unless they taste good. So they have to lead with a great taste and then follow up with an ethical stance, and in some cases a health-conscious position as well.

I fear there will be some companies trading on the belief that Vegan=Healthy, without qualification. Clearly excess sugar, syrups and chemicals are not healthy, even if they are vegan. What I’m excited by is the growth in ethical and healthy options – if only they can be made at a price point that makes them a suitable choice for everyday consumption rather than an occasional treat.

Consumers and vegan chocolate: reaching a wider audience

The growth of the vegan chocolate market has been heavily influenced by the level of education of the population on chocolate. The fact is, a lot of dark chocolate is naturally vegan (see earlier about use of bone char for filtering sugar in the USA, however). But because many people ignore that fact, some companies have been able to attach a premium price when perhaps it is not always justified.

Today, questions such as “is chocolate vegan?”, “Is dark chocolate vegan?”, and “does dark chocolate have milk?” are some of the most frequently searched for on Google. This lets us know one important thing: consumers usually think that chocolate has to contain milk. As a result, even adding in a small vegan label on the packaging of dark chocolate can do a lot to attract a vegan audience.

On the other hand, some companies deliberately avoid labelling their vegan chocolate products as vegan. Long-standing companies like Lindt or Hershey’s might have a lot to lose from adopting that label: it could make their more traditional and conservative audience believe that they are following the most recent trends by coming up with vegan products.

When it comes to the vegan chocolate market, manufacturers have a hard choice to make: either label their product as vegan which could win them a new audience, but alienate more traditional, non-vegan customers. Or not label their products as vegan and risk missing out on the “hype” associated with this diet.

The Takeaway

How is the vegan chocolate market going? It’s growing fast, and shows no signs of stopping! In today’s economy, demand for chocolate products remains high, even as an ever-increasing portion of the population goes vegan. Creating a vegan range or keeping products “accidentally vegan”, every company has a choice.

But one thing remains certain: every chocolate company has to seriously consider the impact that the vegan trend will have on their sales. Not to do so could mean falling behind as the competition is rising to meet the new vegan challenge.

Written by Nick Baskett

2 Comments

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  1. Nick, I suspect that you are not vegan because, unfortunately, most of the bars you recommended are not vegan. If the sugar is not certified free of bone char, the bars can be vegetarian but not vegan. Bone char is used to filter sugar. Most vegans know this so it makes the article seem uninformed. Sorry.

    • Don’t be sorry Paul, I’m really pleased to have your feedback – We’re only interested in accuracy and completeness. So, first let me say – I’m not vegan, and I do actually say this toward the start of the article here “Let me be transparent about my own position up-front. I am not a Vegan”. But I own a restaurant that caters to a lot of vegans and it’s hard to get consensus sometimes on what is acceptable and what is not. The filtered through bone char, which sounds disgusting by the way, is not something that happens in the UK where I’m based, so I can say that it’s likely the UK chocolatiers using sugar but no dairy, can rightly claim to be Vegan. Where the sugar is certified organic in the USA, it can claim to be vegan also, and so can coconut and beet sugar – so I do believe many of the chocolates mentioned can stand as Vegan – they certainly all claim to be! I went back through the articles and have started to contact the US-based companies mentioned that use cane sugar, where they do not specify it is organic. I will update the article accordingly if I find out they are not. Also, I saw your website, and I’m ashamed that I missed your company in our review. I’ll try to get one of my US friends to order some chocolate from you so we can include it in an update. Also, bravo for doing the direct trade model – it’s something I’m researching and writing about now. Hopefully, I will do a good job! Thank you again for adding your important comments. I see you are the founder of https://maverickchocolate.com/ and you are clearly an expert. Thank you for your input.

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