Polyglycerol polyricinoleate, commonly known as PGPR, is being seen increasingly often in commercially-produced chocolate. The good people of Wikipedia describe it as "a yellowish, viscous liquid comprised of polyglycerol esters of polycondensed fatty acids from castor oil. It may also be polyglycerol esters of dimerized fatty acids of soya bean oil." Now doesn't that sound delicious? Serve me up a bowlful, please!
But the slimy yellow story doesn't end there. The chocolate industry (Hershey's, Nestle, Mars, and other low-quality high-finance producers) began using it as of 2006 to make coating chocolate thinner and chocolate products smoother. Kerry Bio-Science, one producer of PGPR and similar products, boasts in a rather awkwardly-phrased way that PGPR enables "products to be
manufactured using lower levels of fat without
sacrificing high quality characteristics.
Key Benefits: viscosity control, aeration, texture."
They also suggest using their polysorbates and sorbitan esters in chocolate to reduce bloom and for stability, texture, and crystallization control. They seem bent on amping up chocolate with every chemical contortion they can find. But what effect does this have on the end product and its consumer?
There have been a number of studies done on PGPR over the past fifty years. All of the studies I reviewed concluded that it did not have any adverse short-term effects on human or rat health, even when consumed in amounts ten to one hundred times as large as the very small percentages often used in food. But we don't consume food in the hopes that it won't harm us, we consume food to nourish our bodies. When PGPR is used to replace cocoa butter, what are we losing?
Certainly, we can lose some flavor. This has only been addressed anecdotally, as far as I know. It makes sense that we would lose flavor: when a local chocolate cafe, Bittersweet, prepared to open its doors, it offered potential customers a sample of three chocolates it was going to carry. One was milk, one dark, and one the loathed white chocolate. But it was free, so my friends and I tried it. We were amazed to find that it was actually edible, and even tasted chocolatey. The owners explained that this particular white chocolate included a high percentage of cocoa butter left in from the manufacturing process, whereas most companies use deodorized cocoa butter in their white chocolate because it is more readily available and lets them control the taste.
Deodorized cocoa butter is more readily available not only because it allows for flavor control, but also because it is often removed in the manufacturing process and sold to the cosmetics industry. PGPR is often hailed as a cost-saving move for chocolate companies because it is much cheaper than cocoa butter, but it is rarely pointed out that for those companies who manufacture the chocolate themselves, there is money to be made in redirecting part of their foodstuffs to rub on consumers' skins at a much higher price than that of chocolate.
The author of the Wikipedia article about PGPR, in his Yelp account as "Aaron P.," states that "It has a detectable and somewhat offputting aftertaste.... American chocolate makers have been lobbying for years to be allowed to add vegetable fats to their products so they can sell the cocoa butter at a higher profit to cosmetic manufacturers. So far they have been thwarted, so now they have moved to using PGPR to lower the levels of cocoa butter while still remaining undetectable to most people." He also noted that "Unfortunately, someone keeps altering the (Wikipedia article) to detail the glories of PGPR, and I have to keep fixing it."
So, some people can detect an unpleasant aftertaste in foods using PGPR, and it represents a healthful ingredient being removed from our food, much like the contrast between the surfeit of cheap low-nutrition white breads in U.S. supermarkets and the high cost of the very nutritious wheat germ that is removed from them and marketed to "health nuts." But is cocoa butter really good for our insides, or are we better off removing it for external use only?
The 1996 study conducted by Andrew Waterhouse of UC Davis which discovered the phenols (potent antioxidants) in chocolate also revealed that these antioxidants come from cocoa butter and the stearic acid it produces. It demonstrated that the phenols prevented LDL cholesterol from building up in arteries. Another study had subjects follow diets in which the majority of fat calories came from either chocolate or butter; only those with the butterfat diet showed an increase in LDL cholesterol.
This is why dark chocolate, which usually contains between about 30% and 50% cocoa butter, is touted for its antioxidant properties, and a bar of Hershey's milk chocolate is not. Unfortunately, Hershey's in particular - one of the biggest users of PGPR - has also moved to take advantage of the new healthier perception of dark chocolate. Not only have they begun buying small high-end chocolate producers like Scharffen-Berger and Joseph Schmidt Chocolates, but they have also expanded their dark chocolate line and begun marketing it heavily as a healthy treat. Besides the irony of their simultaneous replacement of antioxidant-filled cocoa butter with PGPR in their cheaper chocolates, they have put corn syrup in many items from the more expensive and supposedly healthy dark chocolate line.
This is the kind of behavior that buying PGPR-enhanced chocolate supports. Dishonest; unscrupulous; pulling the wool over consumers' eyes. Read your ingredient listings carefully, and research the unfamiliar, and you can feed your mind as well as your body.