People often ask me what the “best” chocolate is; my usual response is whatever chocolate you enjoy most. But there are big differences in the chocolates we eat, and some are made with barely any real chocolate. A quick way to tell is to check the list of ingredients.
Though it sounds obvious, the first ingredient in a dark chocolate bar, bark, or truffle should be cocoa beans (also called cocoa mass or liquor), not sugar, and definitely not hydrogenated oil. Most high-quality dark chocolate consists of a few main ingredients: cocoa beans (including cocoa butter), sugar, soy lecithin, and perhaps vanilla extract or ground vanilla beans. Some may use cane sugar and skip the lecithin (which helps create a smooth texture).
Many factors can affect the flavor, especially the types of cocoa beans used, but lower-quality chocolates typically replace some or all of the cocoa butter with vegetable oil, and substitute vanillin (an artificial flavor) for real vanilla.
For example, for sale at a gourmet store near me is what looks like a box of handmade dark chocolate truffles, but the ingredients, listed in order by weight, are: sugar, hydrogenated palm kernel oil and cottonseed oils, nonfat dry milk, cocoa processed with alkali, cocoa, glyceryl lacto esters of fatty acids, soy lecithin, salt. No wonder a 6-pack sells for $5.99; they’re not using chocolate that costs $10-15/pound wholesale.
Milk chocolate may have as much sugar as cocoa, along with milk powder and other ingredients, but vegetable oils (vs. cocoa butter) and vanillin indicate a lower-quality product. White chocolate uses only the cocoa butter from cocoa beans; the taste and quality also vary significantly depending on the other ingredients.
Sometimes a candy bar that’s short on real chocolate and loaded with artificial ingredients can hit the spot. I’ve found, though, that the more high-quality chocolate I eat, the less I enjoy the taste of other chocolates.