While it may be obvious for some products to be animal-derived (a good example being milk chocolate), others often pose a bigger challenge for anyone that is new to the vegan way of living. Cocoa powder is one such example, and it may require you to check the label to rule out potential animal ingredients.
Is cocoa powder vegan? If we’re purely talking about cocoa powder, then yes, it’s vegan. In fact, cocoa powder is obtained through a process in which cocoa nibs are converted into a chocolate liquor that is mechanically pressed to extract cocoa butter. This process leaves a cake-like mass that is grounded into unsweetened cocoa powder. Throughout this entire process, no animal products are used.
In this article, I’m going to go over potential exceptions to this rule, as well as provide you with two additional reasons that compel a limited number of vegans to avoid consuming cocoa powder, unless it’s from a brand with higher moral and ethical standards.
Is Cocoa Powder Always Vegan?
Cocoa powder comes from the cocoa beans in pods that hang from the cacao tree.
It’s created when the chocolate liquor obtained from cocoa nibs is mechanically pressed to extract cocoa butter, which also leaves a solid cake-like mass that is milled into cocoa powder.
Oftentimes the misunderstanding arises because cocoa powder and chocolate powder can be mentioned interchangeably. This gives rise to the notion that they’re one and the same but that’s not true.
Cocoa powder is not the same thing as hot cocoa mix, which, when combined with hot milk, you can instantly create a mug filled with hot cocoa. However, what you’ll find (upon verifying most labels) is that hot cocoa mix is usually a combination of cocoa, sugar, dehydrated milk, and some other ingredients. In other words, the hot cocoa mix is, in most cases, not vegan.
Cocoa powder, on the other hand, contains primarily cocoa solids and a very small percentage of cocoa butter with no additional ingredients. In conclusion, pure cocoa powder is always vegan.
Dutch Process VS Broma Process
From what I’ve researched there are two basic types of cocoa powder: one derived from the Dutch process and another derived from the Broma process. They’re labeled differently, so you can easily tell them apart.
Pure cocoa powder has a pH level between 5.3 and 5.8, which means it’s rather acidic. It turns out, that the acidity level can alter the flavor and how the cocoa powder interacts with other ingredients, as well as its ability to be dissolved, especially in water.
The cocoa powder derived from the “Broma process” retains the natural pH level, which makes it more intensely flavored and also light in color. On the other hand, the cocoa powder derived from the “Dutch process” is precisely the opposite. The cocoa beans are bathed in an alkaline solution, which enables producers to create a type of cocoa powder that is darker with a sweeter taste and a higher pH level.
However, the “Dutch process” has an impact on cocoa powder’s flavonol antioxidant properties, which are associated with cardiovascular health benefits.
Clinical evidence suggests that natural cocoas are high in flavanols, but when the cocoa beans are treated with alkali, also known as Dutch processing or Dutching, the flavanols are substantially reduced. Despite these alterations, the cocoa powder still remains vegan.
While I believe this isn’t the case for most vegans, I know vegans that are not inclined to eat vegan food that may have been processed in a facility that also deals with animal products.
That is to say, vegan ingredients may come into contact with non-vegan ingredients.
For example, Marks and Spencer’s cocoa powder may actually be in contact with dairy according to this reply to an email we sent:
In a more dangerous scenario, if you’re someone with an allergy, you need to be double careful since a lot of the cocoa is harvested in mixed plantations where fruits like avocados and nuts also grow.
Plus, in a lot of these places they can’t afford separate facilities, which means most driers and processors are used to process everything.
Non-Contaminated Cacao Powders
If you want to avoid cacao powders that may be processed within environments where animal ingredients are also handled, your best alternative is to either seek vegan-certified products or choose ones without the allergen warning.
Allow me to suggest the following alternatives:
- Better Body Foods Organic Cacao Powder
- Viva Naturals Organic Cacao Powder
- Navitas Organic Cacao Powder
Most of the organic alternatives are essentially made from unroasted, cold-pressed cocoa beans that follow the “Broma process”, which allows the cocoa to retain its natural characteristics. Additionally, most of these products are also certified Fairtrade, meaning that they abide by superior ethical and moral standards.
Most Cocoa Powder Is Not Ethically Sourced
Unfortunately, a lot of companies that deal with cocoa (i.e: Nestlé, Mars, and Hershey) don’t necessarily make their products (including cocoa powder) in an ethical fashion. While they’ve promised to halt child labor, they still can’t say with certainty that their products are free of child labor-sourced cocoa.
According to a Washington Post report, Nestlé is only able to trace 49% of its global cocoa supply back to farms, while Hershey and Mars are able to trace even less than that. This essentially means that these companies’ cocoa likely comes from farms in West Africa reliant on child labor to produce chocolate cheaply.
This doesn’t mean that these companies are actively promoting child-labor, it’s just that their inability to trace and solve these issues is quite worrying.
On the other hand, you have certain small cocoa (and chocolate) companies making an effort to build a more ethical industry. They do that by sourcing from farms that don’t rely on child labor and farms that pay their workers better wages. Naturally, this comes with a financial cost for consumers, and also limits these smaller companies since not everyone has the means to purchase ethical products.
However, from a pure consumer standpoint, purchasing ethical products is, quite possibly, the only way to prevent these issues from reoccurring.
How To Find Ethical Cocoa Powder
Ethically-sourced cocoa (the same is true for other products) often contains a fair-trade certification on the label, as well as a transparent explanation about the entire supply chain, which can be found on a company’s website.
A product that is Fairtrade certified usually comes with the words “FAIRTRADE” and it looks similar to the “ying-yang” symbol, but with the colors blue and green (see image above for clarity).
Fairtrade is a concept that guarantees a minimum price for commodities so that workers in developing countries are paid more than they would otherwise be able to earn. Even if the price of these commodities falls, they’re still paid a minimum guaranteed price for their products, providing them a basic safety net.
In theory, Fairtrade it’s a system that doesn’t thrive on human exploitation, and while you can find both pros and cons associated with Fairtrade, it’s still a much better choice than turning a blind eye to the prevailing system.
Vegan Recipes with Cocoa Powder
Now that you’ve finally gotten a vegan-friendly and Fairtrade certified cocoa powder, now you have to put them to good use by creating some delicious vegan recipes.
Allow me to provide you with some of my favorite cocoa-based recipes:
- Easy Vegan Chocolate by The Minimalist Baker
- 5-Minute Vegan Hot Cocoa by The Minimalist Baker
- Homemade Raw Vegan Chocolate by The Spruce Eats
Whilst you can find vegan-friendly hot chocolate mixes online, it might be slightly more difficult in a convenience store near you. With these recipes, you don’t need a hot chocolate mix.
Summary: Cocoa Powder Is Vegan
Yes, cocoa powder is suitable for vegans.
While you may have some reservations due to the potential for cross-contamination, at its core, cocoa powder is an ingredient derived from a plant-based source. It’s a common mistake to confound cocoa powder and chocolate powder together, but they’re very different.
What’s aptly known as chocolate powder contains milk (save for some exceptions), but cocoa powder does not.
Thank you very much for reading and feel free to share this blog post with your friends or someone that may find this information helpful.