WASHINGTON (AP) - Like many battles, this one's being fought block by block. Victory, for whoever prevails, will be sweet. Or bitter—or even bittersweet.
It all depends on how you like your chocolate.
At stake is the very definition of chocolate, and whether cheaper vegetable oils can be substituted for what many consider the very quintessence of every block, bar and square of chocolate: cocoa butter.
In Europe, the cocoa butter vs. vegetable oil fight took 30 years to resolve. In the United States, it's been less than a year since the first volley. Hundreds of chocoholics have joined the fray, the outcome of which could in turn affect the livelihoods of millions of cocoa farmers in Africa and South America.
It all began in October, when a dozen industry groups filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration seeking to amend the standards that guide how nearly 300 foods can be produced, from canned cherries to evaporated milk.
Broadly speaking, the so-called standards of identity are meant to ensure listed products contain the right amount of key ingredients and are both properly made and not deceptively packaged. For example, chocolate in its purest state—the ''liquor'' made from ground, processed cacao beans—must contain between 50 percent and 60 percent cocoa butter, also known as cocoa fat.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, Chocolate Manufacturers Association and 10 other food industry groups want more flexibility in those rigid standards. They seek broad permission to add ingredients, use different techniques, employ new shapes and substitute ingredients—something the standards currently don't allow.
The petitioners say it's all about modernizing antiquated standards that now can take years to change.
''If you're trying to innovate, the process is not amenable to introducing change in a reasonable amount of time. It's not efficient,'' said Regina Hildwine, the Grocery Manufacturers Association's senior director of food labeling and standards.
Opponents of the change say it's out of step with the times.
''It's a real philosophical thing, just about the foods we eat. There is such a focus on people's wanting to know what's in the foods they eat, how they're grown, where they come from—this seems to fly against the direction of the way things are moving,'' said Gary Guittard, the president of California's Guittard Chocolate Co. and a leader of the opposition.
The broadly written petition skimps on the details but includes an appendix that lists examples of proposed changes. Tucked between requests to allow antifungals on bulk cheese and powdered milk in yogurt is what has people riled up the most: a proposal that would let manufacturers ''use a vegetable fat in place of another vegetable fat named in the standard (e.g. cacao fat).''
Manufacturers already can use vegetable fats instead of cocoa butter—they just can't call it ''chocolate.'' Hundreds of people have filed comments with the FDA, with the overwhelming majority seeking to keep it that way, according to an Associated Press review of the file.
''To me, it's a delicacy. I don't eat it every day—I don't want the calories. But when I do enjoy it, I do want real chocolate. I don't want any change in flavor by cheapening the product,'' said one opponent, Avanele Bush, 83, a Malibu, Calif., resident who counts chocolates made by See's Candies Inc. and Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. among her favorites.
The AP's review of many of the roughly 1,500 comments filed with the FDA found none that made substantive mention of any other food that the petition, if granted, would affect.
''It is a passionate debate. You don't get that about yogurt. People feel very protective about their chocolate,'' said Beth Kimmerle, author of ''Chocolate: The Sweet History.''
The FDA has yet to analyze the petition completely.
''Greater flexibility is one of the goals of our modernization. However, we always have to look at whether it results in a food that retains the basic nature of the food, retain the essential character of the food and is something that consumers expect. So that would be very difficult to do in a very short time,'' said Geraldine June, a supervisor in the regulations and review team of the agency's food labeling and standards staff.
For centuries, if not millennia, chocolate has been made from the cacao bean, with cocoa butter an essential ingredient. That ingredient is the essence of the taste, texture and ''mouth feel'' of chocolate, according to Jay King, president of the Retail Confectioners International, an industry group.
Cacao is grown around the globe, within a narrow band that straddles the equator. As many as 50 million people depend upon cocoa for their livelihood, according to the World Cocoa Foundation.
Allowing chocolate in the U.S. to be made with vegetable oils could have an ''extraordinary and unfortunate impact'' on those millions, Steven J. Laning, an executive with Archer Daniels Midland Co.'s cocoa division, wrote the FDA.
But the shift would make chocolate cheaper to produce, since cocoa butter can be four or more times the cost of shea, palm oil and other vegetable fats.
''If you're able to replace cocoa butter with another fat, even at the 5 percent level, you're saving lots and lots of money, especially if you are a major manufacturer of chocolate bars,'' said Bernard Pacyniak, editor in chief of Candy Industry magazine.
Hildwine said those savings could be passed along to consumers. But Guittard and others question that and said any change would debase the very nature of chocolate.
''This incremental degradation of foods over the years—it's a degradation that comes from wanting to make it for less money. We're always trying to make a little more money, and that I think is the problem,'' said Guittard.
The petition comes as scientists find evidence that suggests chocolate—when eaten in moderation—can lower blood pressure, among other health benefits.
Chocolate makers have capitalized on those findings and trotted out products they tout as healthful, especially dark chocolates high in flavanols, antioxidants found in cacao beans.
''It feels like a better time to get clearer about standards,'' Kimmerle said.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association sees its petition as an effort to bring some ''new thinking'' to the modernization of food standards, allowing tweaks and changes to ''old-fashioned recipes'' without having to change each standard in the process.
The petition has split the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, whose members include smaller companies like Guittard Chocolate and larger ones like Nestle USA Inc. and Mars Inc.
The association signed on to the petition but notes on its Web site that any changes or new products would be up to individual companies. As for the larger of those companies, mum was the word. Hershey Co. referred a reporter to the association for comment. But an association spokeswoman did not return a telephone call. Nestle and Mars also did not return calls.
As recently as 2000, however, in letters to the FDA, both Nestle and Mars said they would support allowing up to 5 percent vegetable fat to be used in chocolate. Hershey, meanwhile, was opposed at the time, although a spokesman's recently published comments suggest the company now may be open to using substitutes.
The European Union has used a 5 percent ceiling since 2003.