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reality check

Not all chocolate is created equal. For that matter, not all of the bunnies and eggs lining store shelves this Easter are even chocolate. They might be brown and taste sweet, but according to the definition set out by the federal government, that's where the similarities end.

That's why some of Easter's beloved sweet treats are labelled "candy" and "chocolaty."

Given that millions of kids (and, let's face it, grownups) will be mutilating confectionary bunnies and eggs for the next week, it's worth taking a look at what is actually in those Easter "chocolates."

The basics

First, a bit of context. Chocolate is made from cacao beans, which contain two different components: cocoa mass and cocoa butter. In simple terms, the beans are roasted, shelled and ground into a paste called chocolate liquor, explains Pam Williams, founder of Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver. Adding ingredients like sugar and vanilla makes this bitter paste taste sweet, though nothing like a commercial chocolate bar. Manufacturers will continue to grind the product, sometimes adding vanilla as well as an emulsifier, like soy lecithin, to make it smooth. If the end product is milk chocolate, then milk powder is also added.

According to Canada's Food and Drug Regulations, the only products that can be called chocolate must be made with some form of pure cocoa and cocoa butter combined with a sweetening agent. Various types of chocolate have to follow specific rules spelling out the minimum amounts of ingredients needed to fit the definition. For instance, milk chocolate has to contain at least 15 per cent cocoa butter, 2.5 per cent cocoa and 12 per cent milk solids. You read that right: a milk chocolate bar only needs to contain 2.5 per cent cocoa. The regulations also state that chocolate products can contain small amounts of flavouring agents, salt and emulsifiers.

It's a pretty short ingredient list. Which makes distinguishing real chocolate from the pretenders quite easy, says Williams, who is also this year's president of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association.

Beware the hydrogenated oil

There is immediately something wrong on the ingredient list of the $2.50 blue-eyed Easter bunny at Dollarama. The second ingredient after sugar is vegetable oil. It's a dead giveaway: no product containing a fat other than cocoa butter can be called chocolate. That's why this particular bunny is called "Chocolaty Bunny". But the rushed consumer just looking for enough sweet treats to fill a child's Easter basket may miss that entirely.

Oh and the blue eye? Made with the help of tartrazine, or Yellow #5, the same colour that is being eliminated from Kraft Dinner following an online petition. Some research has linked tartrazine to hyperactivity and worsening symptoms of asthma, among other health problems.

"Of course," you say while munching on a bowl of Cadbury Mini Eggs, "it's hardly a surprise that dollar-store Easter bunnies aren't made with the world's finest ingredients."

But – bad news – Mini Eggs aren't real chocolate either.

If the glaring "candy" label on the front of the package wasn't enough of a giveaway, the ingredient list is. "Modified palm and modified vegetable oil" are the third ingredients on the list. Mini eggs also contain natural and artificial flavours and colours, including tartrazine. Current federal regulations don't require food manufacturers to spell out exactly what artificial flavours or colours are added to products, although many disclose when products contain tartrazine.

In the U.S., Hershey has the license to produce Mini Eggs. Interestingly, the ingredient list shows that Mini Eggs made south of the border are, in fact, real chocolate.

If you love Cadbury Creme Eggs, rest assured they are made with milk chocolate in Canada. The filling also contains a variety of unspecified artificial colours and flavours, as well as calcium chloride, a rising agent and preservative, as well as soy lecithin.

85 per cent cocoa: doesn't matter

It's one thing to be able to tell fake chocolate from the authentic. It's quite another to figure out which varieties of chocolate are made with high-quality, better-tasting ingredients. The ingredient list on a $2 chocolate bunny on sale at Loblaws is strikingly similar to the $10, much smaller, bunny sold by Soma, a high-end chocolate store in Toronto that roasts its own cacao beans. That doesn't mean they're going to taste the same, by any stretch.

Contrary to popular belief, you can't judge the quality of chocolate by the amount of cocoa it contains. It's become common for manufacturers to display the cocoa percentage in bold letters on chocolate bars and they've successfully convinced many that more cocoa equals better chocolate, according to Williams. But all that figure tells you is how much sugar the chocolate contains. A bar that is 40 per cent cocoa contains 60 per cent sugar.

If you are truly on the lookout for better-quality chocolate, let your senses, and your wallet, be your guide. Chocolate made with high-quality beans, more cocoa butter and few additives is usually going to be pricier than the average grocery-store chocolate bunny.

To put it another way, there's a good chance the locally raised, grass-fed steak you buy from the butcher down the street will taste better than the low-grade cut of beef on sale at a discount grocer.

You get what you pay for.

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