If you follow a vegan diet, there are some foods that you already know are off-limits, like cheese and chicken nuggets. But there are other foods that it’s a bit more complicated to shop for—especially since the term “plant-based” has started taking over food packages. Just because a food is plant-based doesn’t mean that it’s vegan. Confusing, right?
Chocolate is one of those foods that can be baffling for vegan eaters. Sure, milk chocolate pretty clearly has dairy (sourced from an animal), but what about dark chocolate? Is cocoa butter vegan? Consider this your official vegan chocolate guide, detailing everything you need to know straight from chocolate experts who are intimately familiar with how chocolate is made. Plus, get tips on how to make sure you’re buying the best vegan chocolate out there and some quality picks to try.
What Is Vegan Chocolate?
According to Clay Gordon, creator of The Chocolate Life, vegan chocolate is chocolate that contains no ingredients that come from animals (or insects) or incorporate processing steps where animal remains might be involved. “For example, dark chocolate sweetened with honey is not considered vegan chocolate,” he says. He adds that sugar derived from cane juice that is filtered through charcoal is usually not considered vegan because the charcoal might contain the remains of animal bones. “Vegan sugar is often unrefined and not pure white,” he says.
While milk chocolate does contain dairy, Gordon says that there are no official rules about whether or not dark chocolate can or cannot contain dairy or other animal-sourced ingredients. But Jennifer Earle, a chocolate expert, food innovation consultant, and founder of Chocolate Ecstasy Tours, says that all good dark chocolate is naturally vegan. (Though, like Gordon, she says some isn’t, depending on how the sugar is sourced.)
“Milk chocolate is only made with cow’s milk powder. Vegan ‘milk’ chocolate replaces the cow’s milk powder with any combination of ingredients in powdered form,” Earle explains. She says that this can include oats, rice, cashews, soy, macadamia nuts, tiger nuts, almonds, sunflower seeds or other nuts. “Basically anything you could also make a vegan milk replacement with,” she says. All of these sources have different tastes and nutritional makeup, so don’t expect all vegan chocolate to taste the same or have the same texture.
What if your chocolate is made with cocoa butter? Though traditional butter is not vegan, both experts say that cocoa butter is. “Cocoa butter is naturally vegan even if it is not certified vegan. But as with sugar there may be a processing step where it comes into contact with some animal product or by-product, thereby rendering it non-vegan, but this is extremely rare,” Gordon says.
What To Keep In Mind When Buying Vegan Chocolate
Both Gordon and Earle concur that vegan chocolate can taste just as delicious as non-vegan chocolate. “It’s up to the skill of the chocolate makers,” Gordon says. He adds that just like there are great-tasting chocolate and not-so great chocolates, there are great-tasting vegan chocolates and some that aren’t so great.
While vegan chocolate can taste just as yummy as traditional chocolate, Earle says that it still may taste different than what you may be used to. “Classic, non-vegan milk chocolate is seared in the memory for most of us and so the vegan versions might disappoint if you’re expecting them to taste the same,” she shares.
So how can you ensure that the vegan chocolate you’re eying is worth the money? Earle advises seeking out good-quality craft dark chocolate. This type of chocolate will be free of emulsifiers and have cocoa solids (the components of cocoa beans remaining after cocoa butter) of at least 40 percent.
Gordon says it’s also important to consider what you like. (The journey to figuring that out can be a tasty one.) For example, if you like sweet chocolate, you’re going to like one that has a bit more sugar. If you like a creamy chocolate, look for ingredients that reflect that, like coconut cream or cocoa butter.
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He adds that the best, most high-quality vegan chocolates aren’t cheap. “The more certifications you add [such as fair-trade, organic, and non-GMO] the more expensive the chocolate should be,” he says. This is necessary to pay the farmers who grew the cocoa a fair living wage. As with other products, with vegan chocolate you often get what you pay for.
With all of this in mind, below are five vegan chocolates to consider trying.
Best Vegan Chocolate Brands to Try
1. Hu Cashew Butter Dark Chocolate with Vanilla Bean ($26 for a 4-pack)
If you like rich, creamy chocolate bars, this one’s for you. These dairy-free bars are made with six simple ingredients: organic cacao, unrefined organic coconut sugar, cashews, organic fair-trade cocoa butter, vanilla bean and sea salt.
2. Raaka Pink Sea Salt Dark Chocolate ($26.95 for a 3-pack)
This five-ingredient chocolate bar is made with unroasted cacao, which makes the flavor sweeter and fruiter than it would be otherwise. It’s then sweetened with maple sugar, which is balanced with the perfect amount of Peruvian pink sea salt.
3. Unreal Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter and Crunchy Quinoa Cups ($29.99 for a 3-pack)
Calling all peanut butter cup lovers! Now you can satisfy your craving with a vegan option. These cups also have quinoa, which adds a nice satisfying crunch.
4. Theo Pure Dark Chocolate ($42 for a 12-pack)
Made with 70 percent dark chocolate, this bar only has three ingredients: cocoa beans, cane sugar and cocoa butter. Bonus: Everything is organic.
5. Conexion Dark Chocolate ($23.99 for a 4-pack)
Conexion sources its chocolate from Ecuador and uses cocoa butter to make it smooth and creamy. It’s also certified organic and climate pledge friendly, which means that the brand is committed to creating the bars in the most sustainable way possible.