What’s really in after-dinner mint chocolates?
The most famous brand of all has a long and complicated list of ingredients, including palm oil. Others, less so
The ingredients list for After Eights is long and complicated.
Long before the ambassador had his staff proffer Ferrero Rocher to guests at his lavish receptions, After Eights were the chocolate of choice for British diplomats. Well, that was the case in television commercials anyway, where they were promoted as the choice of sophisticated globe-trotters. After Eights, as created by Rowntree in Yorkshire, have been around since the early 1960s. They have been made by Nestlé since it bought Rowntree in the 1980s.
Sales have fallen off in recent years. After Eights and similar products are available all year round, though they are more of a seasonal favourite.
The first thing you might notice about After Eights as compared to similar products such as Lidl’s Mints Thins and Marks & Spencer’s After Dinner Mints is that the Nestlé packet is much bigger. A box of After Eights weights in at 300g and costs from €3 to €6 depending on whether you pick them up on offer in a supermarket or at a convenience store. Similar chocolates from competitors are usually cheaper, but tend to weigh just 200g.
Nestlé is one of the biggest food and beverage companies in the world so it can make great use of economies of scale to keep prices down. It also takes pride in employing food scientists to develop processes that keep it “on the cusp of new developments in food science and technology”. These seem to involve a lot more ingredients.
After-dinner mints are easily made using sugar, peppermint oil and chocolate.
Yet the ingredients list for After Eights is long and complicated. It includes: sugar, cocoa mass, glucose syrup, vegetable fat (palm/shea/sal/illipe/kokum gurgi/mango kernel), cocoa butter, butterfat (from milk), emulsifier (sunflower lecithin), natural peppermint oil, citric acid, and stabiliser (invertase).
It’s no surprise to see lots of sugar and glucose syrup, along with peppermint oil in these confections. The cocoa mass, cocoa butter, butterfat and emulsifier help to make the chocolate. Processing aids include citric acid, which helps to extend shelf life, and invertase, which is listed as a stabiliser. Invertase is an enzyme that can be derived from yeast. It is used to split the sucrose, ie sugar, into glucose and fructose, helping to give the peppermint fondant a softer consistency.
Then there are the vegetable fats. This is a difficult area for food manufacturers. Palm oil was seen as the answer to many prayers when the link between hydrogenated vegetable oil and heart disease became clear some years ago. Palm is seen as a healthier option for humans, though not for the environment, unfortunately, as it does not need to be hydrogenated. Its increased use has seen vast areas of forest taken over for its production, with devastating effects in such places as Indonesia, the biggest producer of palm oil and one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
Nestlé has said its “ambition is that by the end of 2020 all of the palm oil that we use is responsibly sourced” but more recent press releases seem to push that date out to 2023. Sustainably produced palm oil is available from countries such as Gabon. In the meantime, the search for other healthy ingredients continues.
Other vegetable oil ingredients include shea, sal, illipe, kokum gurgi and mango kernel. European Food Labelling regulations require food manufacturers to detail the exact type of vegetable oils used in the formulation of products where previously they could have written “vegetable oils”. Shea tends to be from Africa, though the others are mostly from India or wider Asia. Illipe butter, for example, is from a nut that is also grown in Indonesia.
These are not concerns for all manufacturers of minty chocolates. Marks & Spencer, for example, has a much shorter, more enticing ingredient list. Its After Dinner Mints are made of: sugar, cocoa mass, glucose syrup, cocoa butter, invert sugar syrup, emulsifier soya lecithin and peppermint. The chocolate has a minimum of 62 per cent cocoa solids, which is good. Nestlé does not give a figure for this. So it’s a simpler product that won’t keep you up at night worrying about orangutans losing their homes.
Lidl’s Hatherwood Mint Thins are made to a similar recipe to the Marks & Spencer chocolates. The main difference being the use of invertase, salt, and agar, a gelatinous agent made from seaweed. Its chocolate has a minimum of 50 per cent cocoa solids.
After Eights have a cute white-and-gold logo on the back showing a bird feeding her scaldies in the nest. This is a reference to the family name of the founder Henri Nestlé, which the company says means nest in German, not to the fact that confectionery helps Nestlé to feather its nest.