It starts like the lighting of a pilot light at the base of a furnace – what has probably been a building discomfort nudges over the edge into mild pain and into my consciousness. Its light creeps into my sleep and I become awake, feeling it in the pit of my belly. “What’s this,” I think in dismay. I’ve been so good lately – cycles of cooking and cleaning up and cooking and cleaning up and hosting people for meals instead of going out so that I can have complete control of what I’m eating. I’ve been so good – I shouldn’t be feeling this. My mind races backwards over my recent eating and spins to a halt at a single See’s Chocolate Candy that I caved on after dinner. It was dark chocolate covered almonds. I could have gotten up, walked around a dining room table and across a kitchen to read the ingredients on the box, but I rationalized that in a mixed box I wouldn’t be able to tell what was what. I could have just skipped it, I have plenty of high quality chocolate at home. Milkfat is an increasingly common ingredient in mass-market dark chocolate – it’s in Hershey’s and Ghirardelli (owned by Hershey). My formerly favorite Divine dark chocolate with currents & almonds also has butter –apparently cooking the almonds in butter has a preservative effect. But I didn’t look, and now my tummy is telling me I should have. I wonder what time it is, probably 2 am. I open my eyes for a peek…3:30. Not bad, maybe I can tough my way through and back to sleep but the light is burning more persistently now. My mental reverse spin hits another highlight: after dinner, despite feeling very full, I stuffed down an extra piece of (homemade gluten-free dairy-free) cake. At the time that I did it I knew I didn’t physically want it but I felt a powerful urge and indulged it. That could have been a clue there – I am noticing that when I’ve eaten something I shouldn’t I will often begin compulsive overeating within an hour. It’s as if my body responds to an intestinal irritant by wanting to load up material and push the irritant through. Unfortunately the response I have come to expect is that instead the system will shut down, usually for a couple days, as if the downstream flesh has gotten a whiff of what’s coming and wants no part of it. I will go drink some of my new favorite chasers before returning to bed and see if we can skip that part of the ritual this time.
So, drumroll, does See’s have milkfat? Let’s go to their site and see if we can find ingredients. Hmmm– they have a posting of “Allergen Information” – something that is increasingly common on the web. Interesting, rather than listing ingredients, they go by section: “These products are egg-free”, “These products are soy-free”, etc. While that might seems like a strange approach, there are eight FDA-labeled “Major Food Allergens” that companies are required to identify on their labels, so there is a limited list to be enumerated. The eight allergens are: Milk, Eggs, Fish, Crustaceans (shellfish), Tree Nuts (almonds, walnuts, etc), Peanuts (they’re technically a legume), Wheat, and Soybeans. Scrolling down See’s list, I come to the section on “Dairy-Free”. None of the items on the list have chocolate – they’re all jellies and sours. Damn. I check the next section, on Gluten. In that section they explicitly list the few products that do contain gluten and my indiscretion is not among them. Not that I expected it to be, but I’m learning that in the land of processed food, you can’t expect safety, you must always verify.
Why is milkfat increasingly in dark chocolate? FDA regulations do not allow fats (other than cocoa butter) in products labeled “chocolate”, however milkfat is explicitly allowed as a substitute in Title 21, Chapter 1, Subchapter B, Section 163.123 of the FDA Code of Federal Regulations. At least one article I read suggests, like how Divine uses butter, milkfat can help extend the shelf-life of chocolate. In 1999 the European Union allowed substitution of up to 5% of cocoa butter with other fats and the product can still be called “Chocolate”. The Italians responded with a “Pure Chocolate” law, creating a label specifically for chocolate products that have only cocoa butter as their fat. Unfortunately in 2010 the European Court of Justice ruled that they’re not allowed to create that as a defined label. All makers still have to list any ingredients they include, but there’s not a label for the front of a product that ensures pure cocoa butter.
In the US, if it contains vegetable fat it can still be sold, just not labeled “chocolate”. Have you ever had those cheap Palmer easter bunnies and eggs? If you look at the label they’re not called chocolate, they’re called “milk chocolate flavored”. In 2007 seven food producers associations, including the Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association, the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association and the Snack Food Association, filed a petition with the FDA that would allow the substitution of vegetable fats; ostensibly because they’re significantly less expensive than cocoa butter. It seemed to cause a bit of a stir, the trails of which are difficult to still find on the web, and the FDA has not acted. That likely wouldn’t help me, chocolates that have milkfat now would likely continue to have milkfat and substitute out their cocoa butter. Even if they did substitute out the milkfat, odds are that like the Palmer easter coins, it’s chocolate I wouldn’t want to eat anyway, though I’d then also be less tempted into trouble.
I used to consider myself a foodie. At one event I had people introduce themselves by name and favorite restaurant. When it came back around to me I realized that my favorite restaurant was whichever one I hadn’t yet tried. That’s no longer the case – eating out has really lost its joy for me as I feel like a waitperson’s worst nightmare and what I actually receive to be a crapshoot at best. More and more people are on various elimination diets. I see increasing numbers of gluten-free and dairy-free products in the marketplace, it seems this trend is on the rise.
Are we better at diagnosing it or is it more common? I’ve seen references to a study done on preserved blood samples from 1950’s Air Force recruits that suggests that gluten intolerance is actually more common now, it’s not just that we’re diagnosing it more often. Why? Two theories I’ve heard : the increase in monoculture due to our industrialized food system means we’re all eating a narrower variety of wheat; the way our food system stores wheat allows growth of some kinds of mold that people are sensitive to. I don’t really know, I only know what my tummy tells me. Diagnosing allergies and intolerance seems to still be a fuzzy science – blood tests can reveal antibodies but it’s not black-and-white what the antibodies are being produced in response to. There’s clearly a growing market in this segment, which for better or for worse I’m getting early exposure to.
4:57 am. I drank my chaser at about 4. I initially felt a mild intensification of discomfort, as if inner organs were stiffening in response to the additional stimulus, but now things are easing off and I think I’ll be able to sleep. Let’s have at it.