The Secret History of White Chocolate

Is white chocolate actually chocolate—and where did it come from in the first place? The answer involves the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland, questionable pharmaceutical cookbooks, and children’s vitamins.

White Chocolate vs. Chocolate

First, let’s talk about chocolate. According to the Chicago Tribune, the cacao bean—the main ingredient of chocolate—contains about equal parts cocoa butter and cacao nibs. The cocoa butter provides the creamy, smooth mouthfeel of chocolate while the cacao nibs are responsible for the distinctive taste and aroma. Chocolate is made from both cocoa butter and cacao nibs, along with sugar and often milk. Per FDA regulations, chocolate must contain at least 10% cocoa mass to be labeled as chocolate. (Also called chocolate liquor, cocoa mass is the result of finely grinding cacao nibs and includes cocoa butter that is present in the cacao nibs.) White chocolate, on the other hand, is made from cocoa butter without the cacao nibs. By law, it must contain at least 20% cocoa butter and 14% milk products to be labeled as white chocolate.

Some chocolate purists thumb their nose at insistence of white chocolate daring to pretend that it is on par with its milk and dark chocolate cousins since it is missing a crucial ingredient. But some argue that because white chocolate is made from part of the cacao bean, it should be grouped with other types of chocolate. But the law settles this debate: legally, white chocolate cannot just be called chocolate.

The Unwritten History

Despite its sweet, innocent taste, white chocolate has a hidden past. The history of white chocolate is less than straightforward, and Nestlé has long tried to claim ownership. Until recently, the story went that Nestlé developed white chocolate in 1936 as a way to use up excess milk powder that had been produced during World War I. However, this story skips over many earlier uses of white chocolate—and the real story has less to do with powdered milk as a wartime product and more to do with infant formula.

Food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson has uncovered several sources showing that white chocolate had actually been made as early as the 1860s. A new technique in the world of chocolate making called the Broma process may have had something to do with it. Developed in 1865, the Broma process involves placing cacao beans into a bag at a warm temperature to allow the cocoa butter to drip out, leaving the beans ready for processing into cocoa powder. Johnson proposes that this created a surplus of cocoa butter and spurred experimentation to find new ways to use it.

Recipes for white chocolate begin to appear in cookbooks shortly thereafter, although the formulas were quite different from modern white chocolate.

An 1869 recipe for white chocolate caramels was simply a recipe for caramels with the addition of cocoa butter. This recipe appeared in a cookbook by two French chefs.

Recipe for white chocolate caramel tablets

One recipe from an 1872 American cookbook included tapioca, powdered sugar, oatmeal, and Iceland moss (yum) along with “concentrated tincture of Caraccas cacao,” and it was designated as a suitable composition for “delicate persons.”

Another cookbook, specifically for druggists, directed the cook to mix sugar, rice flour, arrowroot, vanilla, and powdered gum Arabic (because everyone keeps that on hand . . .) with cacao butter and then pour the mixture into molds.

The White Chocolate Candy Bar

In the 1910s and ’20s, these experiments moved outside the realm of home kitchens and pharmacies as Swiss chocolatiers began to produce white chocolate. A skeptical article in the International Confectioner sneered at rumors of “snow white chocolate” in Switzerland, which the author, T. B. McRobert, saw as an imaginary nod to the snowy Swiss Alps. McRobert said he would never eat such a thing, as it would have to be bleached with toxic gases to produce the white color. But the rumors grew, and it turns out white chocolate was real (and safe to eat!). Swiss white chocolate was made from cocoa butter and sugar, sometimes with milk powder, chestnut meal, or vanilla.

The early twentieth century saw rapid growth in the candy industry, especially during World War I, which paved the way for the first commercially produced white chocolate. The Double Zero Bar was introduced in 1920 by the Hollywood Brands company in Minnesota. The novel confection consisted of a caramel, peanut, and almond nougat covered in white chocolate fudge, a unique look for a candy bar. If all this talk about chocolate is making you hungry, you’re in luck—this candy bar still produced today, though it’s now called the ZERO Bar and sold by Hershey’s.

A vintage Zero bar wrapper.
The original Zero bar wrapper.
Image from the Candy Wrapper Museum.

Nestlé’s White Chocolate Vitamins

While Nestlé certainly doesn’t have a claim to producing the first white chocolate, it does have a claim to being the first to commercially produce solid white chocolate.

German-Swiss chemist Henri Nestlé had spent part of his career working on an infant formula that could help alleviate the high infant mortality rate in Germany. He subsequently experimented with powdered and condensed milk products that could improve peoples’ quality of life. In 1879, he founded the Nestlé Company with chocolatier Daniel Peter in Switzerland. The duo had perfected a recipe for milk chocolate in 1875 using Nestlé condensed milk, and their partnership continued to prove fruitful. Nestlé began using his scientific expertise to develop new, innovative products both in the candy industry and in the areas of medicine and health.

In 1936, Nestlé worked with the pharmaceutical company Roche to develop a new product called Nestrovit, a tablet made from vitamin-enriched condensed milk that would help provide children with essential nutrients for growth and development. Nestlé faced the challenge of finding a coating for the tablet that would protect the ingredients from damage and preserve their nutritional benefits. Using his knowledge of chocolate production, Nestlé added some cocoa butter to the Nestrovit formula and created a white chocolate coating for the tablet.

Aside from creating a successful health supplement, Nestlé saw the potential for even greater value in the new variety of chocolate he had made. In 1936, the Nestlé Company launched the Galak bar (branded as Milkybar in the UK), a pure white chocolate bar with a sweet and creamy flavor. In 1948, the Alpine White bar with almonds came on the scene and truly popularized white chocolate bars in the US and Canada market. Marketing for the Alpine White bar drew upon the snow-capped Swiss Alps—coming back full circle to prove the early skeptics of white chocolate wrong.

Milkybar, sold in the UK
Image by Evan-Amos from Wikimedia Commons.

White Chocolate Today

White chocolate is often passed over for its cocoa mass-containing counterparts, and many people associate it with cheaper, waxy-textured novelty candy. However, some chocolatiers have begun to take it more seriously. Specialty chocolate makers see white chocolate as a blank canvas for other flavors creative add-ins, without the taste of cacao nibs to overpower delicate flavors. Rosemary and sea salt, roasted strawberry, turmeric and pomegranate, and caramelized or “blond” white chocolate are only some of the unique flavors that artisan chocolatiers have dreamed up.

White chocolate may still be the underdog, and it may not actually be considered chocolate, but it seems that it has great potential for innovation in the future!

Sources

Blakely, Henry. The Druggist’s General Receipt Book: Containing a Copious Veterinary Formulary: Numerous Recipes in Patent and Proprietary Medicines, Druggists’ Nostrums, Etc.: Perfumery and Cosmetics: Beverages, Dietetic Articles, and Condiments: Trade Chemicals, Scientific Processes, and an Appendix of Useful Tables. Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1871. Digitized by Harvard University. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100598206.

Gouffé, Jules, and Alphonse Gouffé. The Royal Cookery Book (le Livre de Cuisine). 1869. Digitized by Harvard University.

Guittard. “Glossary of Terms.” https://www.guittard.com/in-the-kitchen/article/glossary-of-terms.

“Henri Nestlé.” Wikipedia. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Nestl%C3%A9.

Johnson, Sarah Wassberg. “Before Nestle: A History of White Chocolate.” The Food Historian, February 14, 2021. https://www.thefoodhistorian.com/blog/before-nestle-a-history-of-white-chocolate.

Marchetti, Silvia. “How White Chocolate Evolved from a Coating for Kids’ Medicine into a Sweet, Creamy Treat,” November 9, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/magazines/style/news-trends/article/3036673/how-white-chocolate-evolved-coating-kids-medicine-sweet.

Seth, Simran. “For Those Who Think White Chocolate Isn’t ‘Real’ Chocolate, Have We Got Bars for You.” Chicago Tribune, November 28, 2017. https://www.chicagotribune.com/dining/recipes/ct-white-chocolate-is-real-chocolate-20171128-story.html.

TCHO. “Is White Chocolate Actually Chocolate?” January 9, 2018. https://tcho.com/blogs/news/is-white-chocolate-actually-chocolate.

The Dessert Book: A Complete Manual from the Best American and Foreign Authorities. With Original Economical Recipes. Boston: J. E. Tilton and Company, 1872. Digitized by Harvard University. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044087496899&view=1up&seq=125.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: