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Video: Bitter reaction to cheap chocolate

By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 9/19/2008 10:21:13 AM ET 2008-09-19T14:21:13

Oh, milk chocolate. Wherefore art thou?

Apparently not in some Hershey’s products that contained milk chocolate for years, and that has passionate chocolate aficionados fighting mad.

Products such as Whatchamacallit, Milk Duds, Mr. Goodbar and Krackel no longer have milk chocolate coatings, and Hershey’s Kissables are now labeled “chocolate candy” instead of “milk chocolate.”

What’s going on here? On Friday, TODAY consumer correspondent Janice Lieberman reported that Hershey’s has switched to less expensive ingredients in several of its products. In particular, cocoa butter — the ingredient famous for giving chocolate its creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture — has been replaced with vegetable oil.

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The removal of cocoa butter violates the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s definition of milk chocolate, so subtle changes have appeared on the labels of the Hershey’s products with altered recipes. Products once labeled “milk chocolate” now say “chocolate candy,” “made with chocolate” or “chocolatey.”

Some say the label changes are too difficult to spot.

“A lot of people don’t notice it. The package looks exactly the same,” said Cybele May, who has chronicled the changes in detail on her Candy Blog. “I feel betrayed by Hershey’s. They’re giving me an inferior product and they’re not even telling me …

“I call it mockolate, which is basically a fake chocolate product.”

Crunched by rising costs
In a statement, Hershey’s told TODAY that consumers love its products and all its candies are clearly labeled. It still offers real milk chocolate in Hershey’s Kisses, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and its classic chocolate bar.

“And recently it put back the milk chocolate in Almond Joy because consumers complained,” Lieberman said Friday in her report.

Experts say that while many manufacturers cope with higher costs by increasing their prices or reducing their product sizes, Hershey’s change was meant to be less noticeable to customers.

“Clearly food costs, commodities costs have been rising for some time now,” Harry Balzer of the market research firm The NPD Group told TODAY. “The real question is, how will they pass along these costs to consumers without hurting their profits?”

May said the recipe change has ruined the Hershey’s taste for her. But in a blind taste test conducted by TODAY, about half of the participants said they liked the new Hershey’s Kissables even better than the Kissables with cocoa butter.

Nevertheless, some taste-testers were alarmed to learn about the switch from cocoa butter to vegetable oil. One woman said she felt “kind of cheated.”

Fudging the standards?
In terms of calories and fat content, the change from cocoa butter to vegetable oil hasn’t affected the candies significantly. Nutritionists do point out that cocoa butter can offer health benefits — specifically by protecting chocolate’s antioxidant properties. What’s more, cocoa butter doesn’t raise cholesterol levels.

Last year, a number of industry groups lobbied for a change to the FDA’s definition of chocolate — a change that would have allowed cocoa butter to be replaced with vegetable oil. At the time, Hershey’s spokesman Kirk Saville told the Harrisburg Patriot-News that “there are high-quality oils available which are equal to or better than cocoa butter in taste, nutrition, texture and function, and are preferred by consumers.”

The proposed definition change caused a furor among chocolate connoisseurs, who sent hundreds of outraged letters to the FDA. In June 2007, the agency assured them that they had nothing to fear.

“Chocolate lovers need not be alarmed about the future of their favorite product,” the FDA said in a consumer update. “Cacao fat, as one of the signature characteristics of the product, will remain a principal component of standardized chocolate.”


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