Updated February 16, 2021
When it comes to that very real human need to eat something sweet, chocolate remains one of the most popular choices for millions of consumers. Historically, milk chocolate has been the top choice for many, but as more consumers eschew dairy for health and environmental reasons, the vegan chocolate industry is growing. But, what’s the best vegan chocolate?
We’ve put together the ultimate guide to the dairy-free sugary snack, with an aim to answer your most burning questions. And we’ve included brands to try too (the very best brands, in our humble opinion). They’re perfect for Valentine’s Day, birthday treats, or, you know, just a regular Tuesday night.
Why Choose Vegan Chocolate?
When it comes to chocolate, there are a number of reasons why vegan is the best choice. It’s more sustainable, it’s often more ethical, and it may even be better for you too. Here are all the reasons why you should give vegan chocolate a go, plus our top brand picks. (We think they’re some of the best vegan chocolate brands in the world.)
It’s Better For the Planet
Made with cacao beans, chocolate has a long history. Historians believe it was the Olmecs, the first known major Mesoamerican civilization, who consumed the beans for the first time. Exact details are unknown, but some evidence suggests they may have used the fruits in a ceremonial drink recipe. The method of consumption may be very different now, but cacao beans are still a go-to treat for many, in the form of all those chocolate bars that line supermarket shelves.
In fact, according to a 2014 Mintel study, one in six Brits eat chocolate every day. And in the U.S., data from 2015 shows that American citizens eat nearly 18 percent of the world’s chocolate confectionery. The industry is huge; in 2019, it was valued at more than $44 billion globally.
An industry that size places a significant strain on the environment. But vegan chocolate is more sustainable in a number of ways. For one, it excludes cow’s milk. In 2015, the dairy industry emitted equivalent to more than 1,700 million tonnes of CO2.
The vegan brands listed below also have commitments to ethical cocoa bean sourcing. Without proper management, harvesting cocoa beans can negatively impact the planet. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), cocoa farmers often cut down large areas of tropical forest to plant cocoa trees. In Ivory Coast, more than 70 percent of the country’s illegally deforested land is linked to cocoa farming.
It’s (Often) Kinder to People
Unfortunately, human rights abuse is rife in the cocoa industry. According to WWF, an estimated two million children were used in the 2013-2014 cocoa growing season in Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Major confectionary brands, like Mars, have been linked with using cocoa beans farmed using child labour. According to a 2019 investigation by The Independent, the chocolate giant can only trace 24 percent of its cocoa, so there is no way to know the extent of child labor used in its supply chain. The company is not alone; any brand that cannot trace its cocoa beans back to the source carries the same risk.
The publication notes that the cocoa industry generates more than £80 billion in sales every year. But in the 18 years before 2019, it only spent a total of around £117 million on tackling the issue of child labor.
To ensure your chocolate (vegan or not) is as ethical as possible, you can look for the Fairtrade certification (which all of the vegan brands below have). Although, it’s important to note, it’s not a magic, fix-all solution.
According to Fairtrade, the situation is complex. It admits on its website that it cannot guarantee 100 percent of its certified products are free of child labor. However, it does state that if it finds any breaches of its rules (which clearly outline that no one below the age of 15 can be employed by Fairtrade organizations) it takes immediate action to protect the children impacted. (You can read Fairtrade’s statement and policy on child labor here).
It’s Healthier For You
Some vegan chocolate options are healthier than others. Raw chocolate bars, which are often also vegan, can be high in caffeine. And it’s a given that most chocolate options are high in sugar. But there is evidence to suggest that consuming dark chocolate in small quantities has nutritional benefits.
This is because dark chocolate is high in iron, magnesium, copper, and manganese. It’s also high in antioxidants, these are molecules that help to neutralize free radicals in the body (free radical oxidative stress is linked with a higher risk of multiple chronic diseases, like cancer and heart disease).
According to registered nutritionist Nicola Shubrook, eating around 20 grams of dark chocolate every so often is a healthy amount. She wrote for BBC Good Food: “Around six small pieces or two large squares, depending on the bar. However, as dark chocolate is high in saturated fat and sugar, it’s important that it is enjoyed as part of a balanced diet.”
Enjoying chocolate in moderation is also key because there is research to suggest it can be addictive. According to Michael Craig Miller, M.D, the senior editor of Mental Health Publishing for Harvard Health Publishing, chocolate triggers a reward pathway in the brain, because it contains sugar and fat. He advises taking smaller bites, slowly, and less frequently. “Extend the pleasure in it,” he notes.
5 of the Best Vegan Chocolate Brands to Try
If you’re eager to give vegan chocolate a try, there are a number of brands on the market now offering dairy-free milk options and dark. We’ve also tried to choose brands that have open commitments to boycotting child labor in the industry.
Available to buy in the U.S. and the UK, many of Divine’s chocolate bars are completely free of animal products. The British brand is committed to creating smooth, delicious, dark chocolate bars using only Fairtrade ingredients.
Divine takes its commitment to ethics seriously; it’s the only Fairtrade chocolate brand to actually be co-owned by farmers. Kuapa Kokoo Farmers’ Union, a co-operative of 100,000 cocoa farmers in Ghana, is one of its shareholders. It’s also a certified B Corp, which means not only is it committed to “achieving best practice in terms of social, economic, and environmental sustainability,” but it has also undergone rigorous assessment to ensure it is upholding these values.
While some of its products contain milk, much of its offering is vegan. For example, its Organic range, which is made with high cocoa content (85 percent and above), is completely vegan.
Tony’s Chocolonely is known for its commitment to 100 percent slave-free and child-labor-free chocolate. It has five sourcing principles for its cocoa, which include traceable beans and a higher price so farmers can earn a living income. The Fairtrade brand never accepts cocoa beans from farmers that participate in illegal child labor, modern slavery, or exploitation of any form.
The brand has openly stated that it will not be launching vegan milk chocolate in the future, as all of its efforts are focusing on creating a more ethical cocoa supply chain, but some of its dark chocolate is vegan anyway. Its Extra Dark Chocolate bar is dairy-free, and so is its Dark Almond Sea Salt bar.
Update: Since the time of publishing, Tony’s Chocolonely has come under scrutiny for its involvement with Barry Callebaut. The major chocolate manufacturer, which processes (but does not source) Tony’s cocoa beans, is facing legal action over child labor practices.
While many have alleged that Tony’s only works with Barry Callebaut to bring costs down, Paul Schoenmakers, the company’s director of impact, says this is not the case. He told Metro that working with the chocolate giant actually adds more cost. Despite this, Tony’s deliberately works with Barry Callebaut “to show it is possible to be fully traceable while working with a large processor,” he explained.
‘Ultimately, we want to show the biggest chocolate brands that it is possible to make delicious chocolate that is free from modern slavery and illegal child labor,” he added. However, he also noted that Tony’s Chocolonely may now consider building its own manufacturing plant.
Barry Callebaut has announced it is working to eliminate child labor from its supply chain by 2025.
Colorado-based chocolate brand Chocolove offers a wide range of dark chocolate bars in unique flavors, like Chili Mole and Almonds & Sea Salt. The company takes great care to ensure that its products are both delicious and ethically sound. Its chocolate is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, an international non-governmental organization that ensures farms follow sustainable practices.
Two of Chocolove’s bars are certified Fairtrade: Organic Dark Chocolate and Cherries in Dark Chocolate.
The brand is also a member of the World Cocoa Foundation. The organization educates farmers on “issues of labor, proper use of soil amendments and plant treatments, crop management, and post-harvest handling.”
While its dark chocolate products do not contain milk, the brand does not label them as vegan due to cross contamination risks.
Endangered Species Chocolate
Based in Indianapolis, Endangered Species Chocolate is as much about the social and environmental impact of its chocolate as it is about the taste. It donates 10 percent of its net profits every year to conservation efforts around the world. Since 2016, it has donated more than $2.6 million to the National Forest Foundation and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The former helps to conserve the U.S.’s forests, and the latter is the largest gorilla conservation organization in the world.
In the spirit of minimizing harm to animals and the planet, all of Endangered Species Chocolate’s products are vegan, non GMO, and Fairtrade. Notable products include its Oat Milk Mixed Berries + Dark Chocolate and its Bold + Silky Dark Chocolate.
Longtime vegan favorite Vego has come a long way since it launched back in 2010. Now, the brand, which started in Italy, is based in Berlin, and sells its signature creamy hazelnut chocolate bars in more than 12,000 stores around the world. It has also added more products into the mix: Vego Spread (which tastes similar to Nutella), Vegolino (Hazelnut Chocolate Pralines), Vego Dark (with nuts and berries), and Vego White (with almonds).
All of its chocolate is organic, dairy-free, Fairtrade, and completely free of palm oil. Every year, it donates at least 10 percent of its profits to NGOs committed to animal rights, human rights, and environment conservation.
These are just a handful of the ethical, vegan chocolate options out there. As the market grows, there are sure to be even more dairy-free, ethical chocolate bars thrown into the mix. We encourage you to check your local supermarkets, health food stores, and small businesses for more tasty vegan chocolate options. Happy snacking.