Whether you're vegan for your health, vegan for the environment, or vegan for the animals, making sure that nothing you eat contains animal products can be a daily challenge. Becoming a food label speed reader can help, but it is still so easy to grab something we assume is vegan without thinking and it turns out to have non-vegan ingredients when you get home. Everyone has done it! Today we are going to look at the question: is cocoa vegan?
In its pure form, yes cocoa is vegan. You can think of cocoa powder as being the most concentrated form of chocolate there is and it is made only from cacao beans. This means that there are no animal products in it at all. This isn't always the case when the cocoa powder is mixed with other things and, depending on the motivations for your veganism, you may still want to avoid cocoa powder for ethical reasons (more on that later).
Is cocoa vegan?
Let's take a quick look at exactly how cocoa powder is produced. Slabs of roasted cacao beans are pressed at high temperatures to extract most of the cocoa butter (which can then be used to make other products) leaving behind a cocoa cake that can be ground to make powder. Not all of the cocoa butter is removed, so cocoa powder always has a thin layer of cocoa butter on it. This makes its fat content between 8% and 26%, which is worth keeping in mind if you're trying to lower your fat intake!
The good news is that Dutched cocoa powder is also vegan. Dutched cocoa powder is when the cocoa beans are treated with an alkaline substance. This raises the pH level of the cocoa powder, leaving it less bitter and with a darker overall color.
When is cocoa not vegan?
So you can be safe in the knowledge that if you buy pure cocoa powder, it will be vegan. But you do still have to be careful when you are picking cocoa powder up at the store because it can easily be mistaken for similar products that aren't vegan.
Is hot chocolate powder/hot cocoa mix vegan?
Sometimes, you can find hot chocolate or hot cocoa mixes that are vegan. These are usually a simple mix of pure cocoa powder and sugar, to make it more palatable to drink. A lot of the time, however, hot chocolate powder and hot cocoa mix contains cow's milk products. You are unlikely to find any other ingredients that are derived from animal products, thankfully, so cow's milk its derivatives are really the only thing you should need to look for.
Cow's milk can show up on ingredients lists in a variety of ways, including:
Cow's milk is one of the 14 most common allergens, and this can make it much easier to find on an ingredients list than other animal products. This is because, by law, these allergens have to be bolded. So you should be able to scan the ingredients list fairly easily and pick out whether or not there are milk products in the product.
Another decision that all vegans have to make when buying manufactured products is whether they are ok with the prospect of cross contamination. This is a very common issue when vegan products are made in the same production facility as non-vegan products. Again, because milk is one of the common allergens, if it has been made in the same place as products that contain milk, it will be labelled. You would usually see a warning saying "May contain milk products" or "Not suitable for cow's milk allergy sufferers". When you see these warnings, it doesn't mean that there are any milk ingredients in the product. It means that there is a potential that there could be very small amounts that have creeped in during production.
There is one more ingredient that you should be looking out for - lecithin. This is a fatty substance that is used in the production of all sorts of different foods. The problem is that it can be derived from a range of sources, including animals and animal products, and the sources won't always be labelled. Lecithin is often derived from soybeans, in which case the product will be vegan-friendly. So if you see "soya lecithin" or "lecithin derived from soya" then you know that the product is vegan. If the source isn't marked but the product has a vegan-friendly label, then it also will have been derived from soya and the cocoa powder will be vegan.
Is cocoa the same as cacao?
These two terms are easily confused but cocoa is not the same thing as cacao. Both cocoa and cacao come from cacao beans, but cocoa powder has been highly processed. In comparison, cacoa is usually reserved for products where the cacao bean has been kept relatively intact. Cacao can also be made into a powder that can be drunk, but it tends to be more bitter than cocoa powder. You can also find cacao nibs. These are the produced by drying (and sometimes roasting) the cocoa beans and then crushing them to leave bitter chocolate-like snacks. They are loaded with nutrients and are used as a healthy alternative to chocolate. They are also vegan.
Is cocoa the same as carob?
Cocoa is often also confused with carob, which can also be made into a powder. But carob comes from an entirely different plant. Carob is milder and sweeter than both pure cocoa powder and cacao powder and it doesn't contain the stimulants therobamine or caffeine, so if you are trying to lower your stimulant intake it can be a good choice. It doesn't have as many nutrients as cacao but it does have a lot of fiber.
What are the ethical issues with cocoa?
So we know now that, most of the time, cocoa is vegan. But, depending on your reasons for being a vegan, you may still make the choice to avoid consuming it. For ethical vegans, the definition is that veganism is a practice that seeks to "...exclude - as far as is possible or practical - all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose."
While this definition doesn't explicitly mention exploitation and cruelty towards humans, many ethical vegans consider avoiding these cruelties to be part of their philosophy also. And the exploitation of humans is a serious problem when it comes to chocolate and cocoa production. Child labor, and child slavery, in the farming of cocoa has been an ongoing issue.
All along West Africa and the Ivory Coast, you can find children under the age of 14 are forced to work farming cocoa under dangerous conditions and without access to any education. They are often unpaid. Herhey's, Mars, and Nestle all still buy much of of their cocoa from West Africa and cannot guarantee that it wasn't produced by child labor, so many vegans boycott all products made by these companies.
Cocoa from South America tends to be much more transparently produced and isn't riddled with child labor problems, so many chocolate and cocoa companies have started to source their cocoa from these locations instead. There are other things you can look for as well to be sure that the cocoa you're buying is ethical.
Ethical chocolate companies will often sign up to various certification programs that they will display clearly on their packaging to signal that they have sources their cocoa ethically. These certifications include:
- Rainforest Alliance
The rules to be added under these certifications vary, but they all demonstrate that the cocoa is produced in a particular manner that does not involve the use of child labor, and they also ensure that the farmers that do produce the cocoa are getting a reasonable amount of money for doing so.
This doesn't mean, of course, that the problem is over, but it is the start of a push to making sure that the chocolate and cocoa that we consume is produced ethically and without exploitation. The major chocolate companies have made pledges to ensure that their chocolate is also produced ethically, but they aren't there at present.
Whether or not you consider non-ethically produced cocoa as vegan depends on your particular philosophy, but if you want to find ethical cocoa it is possible, and becoming much more accessible as time goes on.
The Bottom Line
Let's come back to the question "Is cocoa vegan?". The short answer is: yes. Since cocoa is made from only cacao beans, it contains no animal products so is vegan. As with many dilemmas in the vegan world, however, it can get a little more complicated than that. When buying cocoa powder, and especially hot chocolate mixes, looking out for sneaky milk products on the ingredients list is a must. And a consideration of the ethics behind the cocoa you are buying is definitely something that ethical vegans would usually do. But, in general, if you are consuming pure cocoa powder, you can be pretty safe in the knowledge that what you're eating is vegan.