If you're looking for the perfect gift for a loved one or even a treat for yourself, chocolate almost always hits the spot. Aside from the swoon factor, any number of benefits have been ascribed to the consumption of chocolate -- brain boosting, mood elevating, cholesterol lowering, aphrodisiac, to name a few. But surely frugal chocoholics want to know: Is chocolate by any other name just the same? That is, does cheap chocolate deliver the satisfying lusciousness that chocolate lovers crave? Our research found that, indeed, you can have an intense chocolate experience without spending a chocolate-covered mint.
Cheap Chocolates Buying Guide
In setting out on our quest to find the best cheap chocolate, we focused on dark and milk chocolate bars with a price threshold of $4 for 3.5 ounces and boxed bonbons and truffles with a per piece price cap of less than 75 cents. Our picks for the top of our inexpensive chocolates basket are Cadbury Royal Dark Chocolate bar (starting at $2.19/4 oz.) and Lindt Lindor Truffles Gift Box (starting at $8/5.1 oz.; 67 cents a piece). The second best cheap chocolate picks include Dove Silky Smooth Dark Chocolate bar (starting at 79 cents/1.3 oz.) and Trader Joe's Box of Chocolates (starting at $4.99/16 oz.; 15 cents a piece). Two cheap chocolates that fell out of the basket, CVS Absolutely Divine Belgian Milk Chocolate bar (starting at $2.29/3.5 oz.) and Whitman's Sampler (starting at $9.99/12 oz.; 42 cents a piece), failed to win reviewers' love.
To find the best cheap chocolates, we supplemented our usual reading of expert and consumer reviews, blogs, and news stories with blind tastings among friends and a small poll of random consumers. All the brands we tested and researched are mentioned in this buying guide.
Cheap chocolate is a mass-market product -- some being very good and some, not so much. The best low price chocolate has a pleasant chocolate smell and a glossy, unblemished appearance. The mouth feel is velvety, not gritty or waxy, and the taste is richly chocolate without any chemical undertones. You know there's sugar in there, but it doesn't dominate, and a bit of snap when you bite into inexpensive chocolate indicates it's been well tempered. Our test panel reported that some low priced chocolate doesn't have lots of taste when first bit, but a chocolate-y fullness develops as it melts in your mouth. The panelists' favorite chocolates presented with a smooth mouth feel and flavor that lingered.
The chocolate-making process is long and involved, and all the steps along the way affect the quality of the end product. Chocolate makers adhere to their own recipes, and the unique combination of beans; the proportion of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar; and the length of time the chocolate is conched (kneaded through heavy rollers) and then tempered (heated, cooled, and reheated) all account for the distinction between cheap chocolate and expensive and the varied taste sensations consumers experience. The big names in the business today include Hershey's, Mars, Nestle, Cadbury, and Lindt at the affordable end and Callebaut, Guittard, and Valrhona at higher price points.
As with many other simple indulgences these days, a mushrooming army of artisanal, small batch makers and purveyors of fine, upscale chocolates has descended on the foodie world. There are chocolatiers who buy unfinished chocolate and conjure all manner of fancy filled candies and "bean to bar" chocolate makers who source cacao beans from far off equatorial regions and create their own chocolate delights. Borrowing from a practice common among wine and coffee processors, some chocolate artisans are now applying geographic and vintage labels to the finished product. Never mind -- the best cheap chocolates still deliver the fix you need.
Chocolate for drinking has been around since the time of the Aztecs but chewable chocolate arrived on the scene much later. Chocolate-dipped candies, also known as bonbons (the word means "good good"), made their debut at the French royal court during the 18th century. Chocolate bars appeared in the mid 19th century, when two Englishmen, Joseph Fry and John Cadbury, separately found ways to mix together cocoa and sugar to forge an edible slab. Somewhat later, Henry Nestle produced the first milk chocolate and Rodolphe Lindt perfected a way to produce a bar that would hold its shape and melt in the mouth. Chocolate bars arrived in the U.S. when Milton Hershey introduced the Hershey's bar in 1900.
The eating chocolate we buy today is classified as dark, milk, or white. By law, the primary ingredients in dark chocolate must be cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Milk chocolate contains some form of milk, either powdered or evaporated. White chocolate isn't really chocolate -- it's lacking in cocoa solids but does contain cocoa butter, although some really cheap white chocolate substitutes at least some vegetable fat for the cocoa butter. Chocolate keeps for several months if stored in a cool, dry place (definitely not the refrigerator), which should prevent blooming, or turning grey. But really, can you wait that long to chomp it down?
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Chocolate reviews online are sparse, so we supplemented with our own chocolate review. We organized blind tastings that involved two to six panelists and randomly queried about 25 consumers who were shopping for chocolate and collected responses to a question on Facebook that asked friends to name their favorite chocolate bar. For the hands-on testing we started with a variety of inexpensive chocolate bars that cost less than $4 for 3.5 ounces and included a few that cost a bit more. We also set up blind tastings for boxed chocolate candies (bonbons and truffles), with a price ceiling set at 75 cents for an individual piece. The Facebook effort generated votes for Valrhona, Callebaut, and Green & Black's Organic chocolates, among others, but the favorite was Hershey's Milk Chocolate with Almonds. Although taste is surely subjective, the reviews that we conducted along with the few we found online produced clear winners and losers.
Because Hershey's Milk Chocolate with Almonds was frequently named the favorite in our unscientific poll (and before our panel actually tasted any chocolates), we decided to add variety chocolate bars to the chocolate reviews mix. Variety chocolates contain other flavors or add-ins, from almonds or dried fruit to savory delights such as bacon, lavender, or chili. We didn't rank the few we tasted, but solicited opinions and scoped out reviews.
High nostalgia value attaches to Hershey's Milk Chocolate with Almonds (starting at $2.19/4.25 oz.) that fizzled quickly in today's real world. Chocolate reviews posted on Amazon lament that the bar is devoid of whole almonds, and the almond pieces present seem mushy and lack the satisfying crunch and roasted flavor that Hershey's fanciers remember from days gone by. Our panelists were likewise disappointed and declared the milk chocolate to be very sweet and a bit waxy.
Then there's Chocolove's Almonds & Sea Salt in Dark Chocolate (starting at $2.32/3.2 oz.). Consumers who posted chocolate reviews on Amazon and Vitacost consider this bar addictive. Bloggers and our tasters agreed, saying it delivers the sort of deliciousness that makes you swoon: The salt crystals accent the chocolate flavor and the almonds present a full-on almond taste and satisfying crunch.
The Cadbury Fruit & Nut Bar (starting at $2.25/2.4 oz.) is the familiar Cadbury milk chocolate bar with lots of raisin, cashew, and almond pieces. A British favorite that's replicated in the U.S. in slightly altered form, this is a chunky bar with a mellow chocolate flavor and creamy texture. The American version is quite sweet, but as one inexpensive chocolates review on Amazon notes, the combination of textures and tastes delivers a mouthful of joy.
Two other variety chocolate bars bear mention. Green & Black Organic Chocolate is known for its fair trade practices and interesting flavor mix-ins. The Maya Gold (starting at $3.99/3.5 oz.) is an orange-spice flavored treat for serious dark chocolate lovers. The deep chocolate flavor marries well with the orange, and the overall effect is a rich chocolate taste that's just bitter enough. One of our panelists thought the spice should dominate, but a chocolates review on Amazon deemed the spice too heavy-handed. Valrhona Manjari Orange (starting at $5.50/3.5 oz.) is beyond our price range, but reviews indicate it gets the flavor balance just right. With bits of orange peel blended in, the citrus doesn't overwhelm the chocolate, which is slightly bitter. Although one blogger declared the orange chocolate bar falls short of the standard set by the unadulterated Valrhona bar, another blogger found the texture to be smoother and creamier than other bars.
Recent medical reports have touted the virtues of dark chocolate as a health food -- but only the kind without sugar, milk fat, hydrogenated oils, and additives, that is. Scientists have linked moderate consumption of so-called healthy dark chocolate to weight loss, lower risk of sudden death, lower blood pressure, and the production of feel-good endorphins. The antioxidants in chocolate also possess anti-cancer, anti-clotting, and anti- inflammatory properties, among other benefits. Eat lots of it, however, and you'll still pack on the pounds.
Dark chocolate is sometimes labeled bittersweet and sometimes semi-sweet, depending on the brand. Regardless, look for dark chocolate that reveals the percentage of ingredients derived directly from cacao beans; the higher the percent, the less sugar and the darker and denser the chocolate flavor. Regulations in the U.S. and the European Union stipulate that dark chocolate must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor (cocoa butter plus dry, non-fat cocoa solids); in the United Kingdom, that number rises to 43%.
Our panel tasted six dark chocolate brands, each available in bar form: Cadbury Royal Dark (starting at $2.19/4 oz.); Trader Joe's Dark(starting at $1.79/three 1.5 oz.bars); Dove Silky Smooth Dark (starting at 79 cents/1.3 oz.); Lindt Excellence Madagascar 65% (starting at $3.50/3.5 oz.); Ghiradelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72% (starting at $2.99/3.5 oz.); and Hershey's Special Dark (starting at $1.97/6.8 oz.).
The panel liked most of the samples but gave the nod for overall best chocolate to Cadbury Royal Dark. This dark chocolate exemplar was described as having a cinnamon-y undertaste, a good amount of sweetness, and a wonderfully smooth texture. Even the milk chocolate partisans, who considered it very dark and not extremely chocolate-y, preferred it to the other dark chocolate bars. Two reviews posted on Amazon indicate it's a consumer favorite as well, due to its semi-sweet taste and well-balanced flavor. The panel's second choice in the cheap chocolate bar category was another dark chocolate, Dove Silky Smooth. Although our tasters didn't quite agree about the silky smooth element -- some declared it was almost crumbly -- they did concur that it's a mild and mellow dark chocolate with an appropriate level of sweetness. A couple, however, detected a slight acidic undertaste.
We expected Lindt Excellence Madagascar 65% to rate more highly than its third-place finish, but it garnered divided reviews. Some panel members described the texture as waxy and said the taste took time to flower. And while the dark chocolate fans detected no bitterness, those who prefer milk chocolate asserted the opposite. A review by experts at America's Test Kitchen (this review is apparently behind a subscriber wall) notes that this Lindt dark chocolate bar contains a low proportion of cocoa solids and concludes that it has a "one-dimensional" flavor. Trader Joe's Dark chocolate bars were described as smooth by our panel members, who also said it presents lots of chocolate flavor; a few commented about a slightly acidic aftertaste.
Two dark chocolate bars in our taste test were a let-down. Ghiradelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72% failed to win over panel members. This bar boasts the highest percentage of chocolate liquor among those we tested but our panelists reported it lacked a strong chocolate taste. They said it took a while for the taste to emerge, although it lingered and grew sweeter the longer the chocolate stayed in their mouths. Our review panel decided that Hershey's Special Dark is OK but doesn't taste particularly dark. Hard-core dark chocolate fans insisted it has barely any taste and some likened the taste to semi-sweet chocolate chips. All concurred about the smooth texture but some declared it a bit waxy. Reviews on Amazon say it lacks the same depth of flavor as other dark chocolate bars and has an overpowering sweetness.
Hershey's milk chocolate is the candy many of us know from childhood. Its familiarity is one reason why Americans generally prefer milk chocolate to dark chocolate. Milk chocolate is sweeter and softer, and the first ingredient listed on the label is often sugar. Milk is added often in the form of milk powder, and the resulting brew is lighter and the flavor less intense than the dark variety. U.S. regulations set the minimum percentage of chocolate liquor (the mix of cocoa solids and cocoa butter) at 10%, while the European Union requires that milk chocolate contain at least 25% cocoa solids. Expert lab tests show that most American milk chocolate contains well above the minimum, and some brands contain enough chocolate liquor to qualify as dark chocolate.
We put our panel through their paces in a blind test of five milk chocolate bars: Hershey's Milk Chocolate (starting at 56 cents/1.55 oz.); Cadbury Dairy Milk (starting at $1.68/3.5 oz.); CVS Absolutely Divine Belgian Milk Chocolate (starting at $2.29/3.5 oz.) and Whitman's Sampler (starting at $9.99/12 oz.; 42 cents a piece); and Trader Joe's Milk Chocolate (starting at $1.79/three 1.5 oz. bars). Just for fun, we threw in a more expensive bar, Michel Cliuzel Lait 45% (starting at $6/2.5 oz.), which our panelists declared the best milk chocolate of the bunch. They justified their votes by saying the texture is rich and creamy and the taste is very chocolate-y, not overwhelmingly sweet, and there's a hint of caramel that lingers and deepens without getting bitter.
Back in the Cheapism range, Trader Joe's Milk Chocolate scored second place in the cheap milk chocolate category. Our panel described the taste as solid and very milky and not cloyingly sweet, and said the bar melts in the mouth slowly. Some testers detected a weird undertaste that seemed almost chemical, which is surprising given the absence of preservatives or artificial ingredients.
We tested the American (as opposed to the British) version of the Cadbury Dairy Milk bar, which is made by Hershey's. (Sugar tops the ingredients list for the American bar while milk holds the top spot in the British bar.) Our tasting panel decided the Cadbury Dairy Milk bar is neither too chocolate-y nor too sweet, that it's "melty" and smooth, creamy and thick; one said it was almost sticky. The tasters at America's Test Kitchen applauded the texture but pronounced this milk chocolate bar too sweet.
The iconic Hershey's Milk Chocolate bar certainly claims lots of devotees, but not among our panelists. They said it tasted familiar but didn't measure up to the other cheap milk chocolates in the blind tasting. The consensus opinion declared it excessively sweet with a waxy texture, although there's a pleasant chocolate flavor that lingers and it melts easily. One chocolate blogger considers it more candy than chocolate.
While Hershey's might be reserved for an immediate chocolate fix in the absence of other alternatives, the same can't be said for CVS Absolutely Divine Belgian Milk Chocolate. Our panel decided this bar has virtually no flavor other than sugar, and noted the presence of an acrid undertaste. Moreover, this milk chocolate bar is very thin, melts too fast, and leaves no lingering chocolate taste. Divine? Not.
Boxed chocolate incorporates many kinds of confections, ranging from chocolate-covered caramels, creams, fruits, or nuts (all known as bonbons) to luxuriously rich truffles. Almost every chocolatier, including mass market producers such as Russell Stover and Godiva and regional confectioners such as See's and Fannie May, puts together boxed assortments. Boxes come in various sizes, from two sweet treats to dozens. We researched boxes that hold at least six chocolates, each piece costing well under 75 cents.
Bonbons.Boutique chocolatiers make their own bonbon creations in small batches with prime ingredients, unique flavors, and price tags to match. One of the most famous artisanal brands is Jacques Torres, which starts the candy-making process from scratch, with real cocoa beans. Jacques Torres chocolates are fresh and preservative-free and far beyond our price range, but not phenomenally expensive as indulgences go -- a box of 12 costs less than $20.
Back in the Cheapism price range, we tested two assortments of boxed chocolate bonbons. Trader Joe's Box of Chocolates (starting at $4.99/16 oz.; 15 cents a piece) earned a second-tier spot in our best cheap chocolates basket. Some bonbons are chocolate all the way through and others are chocolate-covered fruit-flavored creams, caramel, toffee, etc. Our panel members liked the all-chocolate dark and milk chocolate bonbons best and said the creams are exceptionally sweet. One big selling point with this bonbons box is the map inside telling you what's where so you can quickly find your favorite treat. It also comes packaged in seasonally appropriate gift wrap.
The Whitman's Sampler (starting at $9.99/12 oz.; 42 cents a piece) proved a dud in our blind tasting. The list of ingredients runs on, which may give these bonbons a long shelf life but also a protective shield against melting, be it in the box or in your mouth. Although the familiar yellow box is widely available, sometimes with appropriate-to-the-holiday gift wrap, there's little here to tempt the frugal chocoholic. Our panelists unanimously declared the bonbons unpalatable and added that the assorted varieties are indistinguishable one from the next and taste of little more than sugar and chemicals. The chocolate on top is waxy, the nuts seemed stale, and experts at a consumer products testing site deemed the flavor quality to be low.
People from the west coast may be familiar with See's, which earns a very good rating from expert testers for the freshness of its chocolate and blended toffees that taste like real butter. An assortment from See's runs $16.90 for a 25-piece pound (about 68 cents a piece), leaving it well within our price range. We didn't test See's, but one of our panel members who hails from the west coast admitted to liking the dense and chewy candies but insisted they're a treat destined for a mother rather than a friend.
Truffles.Truffles are the crown jewel of the chocolate confection world. They mimic the rounded shape of truffle mushrooms routed out by pigs in the woods of France and consist of an inner layer of chocolate ganache (chocolate and cream) surrounded by a chocolate shell coated in cocoa powder or nuts. You can make truffles at home with three ingredients and about five minutes of work, but truffles in a box make a dream of a present. As with chocolate bars, there are many entrepreneurial chocolatiers divining their own takes on these mini-treats by adding interesting flavors to the ganache and finishing with different types of coatings.
Our favorite truffles find is the Lindt Lindor Truffles Gift Box (starting at $8.00/5.1 oz.; 67 cents a piece), which earned a top berth in our basket of best cheap chocolates. Consumers wax ecstatic about these assorted truffle treats in reviews on Viewpoints, and our tasters echoed the acclaim. The dark chocolate version of these truffle confections has a very satisfying snap to the outer shell while the milk and white chocolate varieties are softer. Panel members reported that the ganache inside all three types is yummy and not too sweet, the consistency is smooth, and each bite melts in your mouth. The white chocolate truffles taste strongly of vanilla, with a delightful aftertaste, and the dark chocolate truffles are sweeter than you might expect of a dark chocolate confection.
Godiva truffles cost about $2 a piece, putting them well above the Cheapism price ceiling, but we're giving them a shout-out anyway. (Godiva also makes Gems -- little truffles that cost $20 for 32 pieces, but these come in bags, not a box). The box is filled with dark, milk, and white chocolate truffles that boast creamy consistencies and snappy outer shells. The smooth fillings have a rich chocolate taste without being too sweet, and reviews posted at Macy's assert they're terrific. Consumers posting comments on Amazon, however, report receiving boxes that were old and stale.
Taking a slightly different tack, Ferrero Rocher truffles (starting at $4.79/10.6 oz.; 40 cents a piece) feature a creamy filling that surrounds a whole hazelnut and a milk chocolate coating rolled in chopped nuts. Nibbling on a Ferrero Rocher truffle is like eating crunchy Nutella, which is also produced by Ferrero. In reviews posted on Walmart, consumers say the nuts actually are crunchy, and they like the strength of the hazelnut flavor. The chocolate is on the sweet side (a plus for milk chocolate partisans) but the nuts do a good job of moderating all that sweetness.