All I want for Valentine’s Day is for people to admit that milk chocolate is actually delicious.
Too often, “trash” is the epithet awarded to chocolate that contains less than 50% of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. But, be honest. The way milk chocolate hugs you back by melting on your tongue into a creamy, sweet, cocoa puddle is pure love.
For years, though, we’ve been told that dark chocolate is the superior form of the confection. Does milk chocolate really deserve its bad reputation?
Jeni Britton Bauer, the founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, doesn’t think so. Unsurprisingly, the queen of ice cream loves all forms of milk-laced treats, and milk chocolate is no exception.
“I blame Hershey. I think people have gotten so used to the idea that milk chocolate is a commodity product and not a specialty product.”
– Jocelyn Gragg, pastry chef and owner of Jardi Chocolates
When milk proteins are added to naturally bitter chocolate, the chocolate’s flavor is softened by the milk and cocoa butter, while the texture becomes rounder and less brittle, Britton Bauer explained to HuffPost. “You actually end up getting a lot of the flavor quicker because it melts faster on your tongue. So even though it’s less bitter or sharp, you get the nuances of the chocolate faster,” Britton Bauer said.
Jeni’s creates milk chocolate ice cream with condensed milk and milk proteins, which makes for an ultra creamy chocolate. The brand does this to create flavors like the aptly named Milkiest Chocolate or the (currently unavailable) Honey Milk Chocolate with Smoked Almonds. “That smokiness in the milk and that subtle chocolate goes so well together. It’s actually just one of my favorite things to do with milk chocolate ice cream,” she said.
Luxury ice cream credentials aside, Britton Bauer is no snob when it comes to indulging. Her favorite candy bar is Take Five by Reese’s, but she also has a penchant for the milk chocolate buttercream candies made by Anthony Thomas Chocolates in Columbus, Ohio. “I do this maybe once a month, I go get a box of 30 of them or something like that, and I’ll eat two a day until they’re gone. I love them so much.”
At Jardi Chocolates located in Chamblee, Georgia, Jocelyn Gragg is enthused when asked why she likes milk chocolate. “I feel about chocolate the same way I feel about coffee. Sometimes, I really want an espresso, and sometimes I want an affogato. Your mood changes,” Gragg said. “If it’s good milk chocolate, I think it deserves as much respect as anything else.”
So why are people so quick to rebuke milk chocolate?
“I blame Hershey. I think people have gotten so used to the idea that milk chocolate is a commodity product and not a specialty product,” Gragg said.
So why does milk chocolate get a bad rap?
Chocolate has been around for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that it became the mass-produced treat that we know and love today. Author Megan Giller, who gives guided chocolate tastings, told HuffPost that in 1867, Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter combined Henri Nestle’s powdered milk with cocoa butter and created the first milk chocolate. Hershey’s began mass-producing chocolate bars in 1900, and the wrapped confections continued to be a smash hit.
According to “The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets,” it wasn’t until the 1980s, when French brand Valrhona arrived in the United States, that dark chocolate became more distinctive to the American palate. Valrhona, which is mainly intended to be used by professionals like pastry chefs, began differentiating which chocolates were single-origin and labeling cocoa percentages.
“I think that’s when dark chocolate started to become very prominent and people started saying, ‘Oh, this 70% bar must be very special and different than the ‘low-quality’ milk chocolate I’ve been eating,’” Giller said. “Valhrona, of course, was much higher-quality chocolate than all the milk chocolate we’d been eating, but they also make milk chocolate that’s equally delicious and high-quality, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that milk chocolate as a category is bad.”
Following Valrhona’s lead, “bean-to-bar” brands like Scharffen Berger were formed in the 1990s with an emphasis on dark chocolate.
The 1990s is also when “antioxidants” widely entered the American vocabulary. An antioxidant is a substance that reduces damage to cells caused by free radicals (you can read a more in-depth definition here). Studies at the time showed that people with diets high in antioxidant-containing foods like fruits and vegetables were less likely to develop certain medical conditions (particularly cancer). Suddenly, anything with an antioxidant was marketed as such, including dark chocolate, which is high in flavonoids.
“I will never say that milk chocolate is bad for you,” said Lauren Manaker, a registered dietician based in Charleston. Ounce for ounce, milk and dark chocolate are nearly the same nutritionally — milk chocolate by the brand Endangered Species, for example, is 170 calories, 11 grams of fat, and 10 grams of sugar while their “Espresso Beans + Dark Chocolate” bar has 160 calories, 11 grams of fat, and 8 grams of sugar — but the rub, Manaker said, is in what milk chocolate doesn’t have, which is antioxidants.
“It just doesn’t offer as many benefits. So as a dietitian, I look at the big picture. If you’re eating a piece of milk chocolate and the rest of your day is super healthy, it’s fine. But if you’re eating three bars of milk chocolate on top of junk, it’s pretty bad.” Manaker herself is a fan of Lily’s milk chocolate, which is made with stevia instead of sugar.
Moderation is key when enjoying milk chocolate, just like any other sweet you might consume. Dark chocolate might have a host of health benefits (although not all dark chocolates are created equal), but when you need a cocoa-fueled Calgon-take-me-away moment, you’re going to turn to the treat that makes you most happy.
If you’re ready to give milk chocolate another chance, but want to ensure that you’re indulging in a higher-quality sweet, Gragg suggests seeking out milk chocolate with a percentage count on it. “Anyone who’s listing the percentage and goes out of their way to tell you why their milk chocolate is special, is someone who’s proud of their products,” Gragg said. “You’re not going to see that on a Hershey bar.”
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