As I've reduced my consumption of processed foods, one thing I've missed is a sweet treat after dinner. I found that dark chocolate (dairy and gluten free!) is a good option for satisfying my sweet tooth. Sometimes I eat it a chunk all on it's own. Other times I melt it over fresh fruit. Delish!
Recently, I was picking up some groceries from Trader Joe's and decided to check out their chocolate selection. I found a bar that was organic and fair trade, had few additives, and did not list any dairy ingredients or include dairy in the food allergy list. However, it was lacking the symbols that Trader Joe's uses to identify vegan foods. I'm not vegan, of course, but given how sensitive my body is to dairy, it is comforting to see the symbol. Many other chocolate bars at Trader Joe's do bear this symbol.
Naturally, this led me to ponder why this particular chocolate bar was not vegan. I actually brought the bar to the Trader Joe's service desk to inquire further. The man behind the counter (for the life of me, I can't remember his name, so I will refer to him as Joe) was nice enough to look up the chocolate on the master list of food allergies. Sure enough, my organic chocolate bar did not make the cut. Joe offered to look into the matter and call me with an answer.
Imagine my surprise when, the very next day, Joe called me and explained that the organic evaporated cane juice used to sweeten the chocolate was the culprit. Apparently, it is processed using bone char so it cannot be considered vegan or vegetarian. I thanked Joe for his information, and spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what the heck bone char is!
I had a hard time finding well cited information, but it seems that bone char is a type of charcoal filter made of processed animal bones. It is often used for refining sugar cane in order to lighten its color and remove impurities. Evaporated cane juice is the product of this refinement followed by the evaporation of some of the liquid. Many websites stated that evaporated cane juice is never processed with bone char, nor can bone char be used in any organic products. This, of course, conflicts with my experience with Trader Joe's.
I called TJs back to double check. The chocolate bar is only 95% organic, so some conventional ingredients are used. However, the evaporated cane juice is listed in the ingredients as organic. Upon further inspection, I found that bone char is approved as a fertilizer in organic farming, but I could not confirm (or refute) the use of bone char in organic sugar or organic cane juice refinement.
This whole investigation shows quite clearly that anytime you eat processed food, you are taking a risk. It is pretty much impossible to know what exactly is in your food and where it came from. It also highlights how difficult it can be to separate oneself from the industrial food system. It's easy to avoid a big industrial steak or to buy veggie broth rather than chicken broth. But if you really want to eliminate mysterious additives or industrial animal products, you just have to buy food raw and prepare it yourself.
So, what to do about the chocolate... Well, first I will send an email to Trader Joe's and see if I can find out which company makes the organic evaporated cane juice used in their products. Hopefully, I can then figure out if bone char really is used in the processing, and how it can still be considered organic. In the meantime, though, I will probably buy the chocolate. The fact that it is 95% organic means that the 95% of the ingredients were grown in a less environmentally-damaging way. It's also fair trade and contains few additives. It may use bones from animals that were raised in a CAFO, but let's be honest – it isn't the refinement of evaporated cane juice that drives the industrial food system. The proliferation of cheap feed calories and our expectation of unlimited access to cheap meat drive the system. My chocolate consumption (or lack thereof) will not have an impact. It's much more important to avoid industrial meat and processed foods. And besides, every “diet” needs a touch of sweetness. And this dairy-free, gluten-free, organic, fair trade, dark chocolate bar sounds like the best option. Mmm, bone char.
Here are a couple of the links I found regarding bone char: