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Not-so-sweet news for chocaholics

Might the rising price of chocolate finally curb our appetite for the sweet stuff?

The UK is the biggest consumer of chocolate in Europe and, according to research company Datamonitor, we each devoured the equivalent of 266 Mars Bars last year. Our appetite is only increasing, with sales predicted to rise by another third in the next few years.

But the price of cocoa butter, the main ingredient in making milk chocolate, has risen 80% since last year thanks to a combo of bad weather and increased demand on the cocoa bean crop in the key growing region of the Ivory Coast.

That trickles down to a price increase of up to 30% for the chocolatier's most important raw ingredient, cocoa. Analysts are saying the worst-case scenario is a 21p price rise in the average 100g bar of milk chocolate. As this basically means the sugary branded stuff available in every shop, I would be tempted to look out the celebratory bunting. But it is never going to happen: I bet the big brands will increase the volume of cheap high-calorie ingredients to keep retail prices down.

Sales of less sweet chocolate, with a higher cocoa content, are also rising and artisan chocolatiers are having to find ways of mitigating the impact of price increases.

In Scotland, the luxury end of the market has been seeing a healthy growth, with at least three established brands doing well and a new one, iQ Chocolate, just launched. This brand from Stirling is made from single-origin beans from Peru and is the first in Scotland to be make chocolate from raw beans. It is three times more expensive than luxury chocolate, yet it has already tripled in size and expects to grow ten-fold next year.

It seems that alongside the ubiquitous mass-market brands, there is a parallel taste developing for the more expensive artisan kind made from single-estate beans. Which means pressure on plantation owners to come up with the goods is mounting, while its availability is diminishing.

Continuing problems in West Africa, which produces 70% of the world's cocoa in the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, means chocolatiers are paying between £9 and £15 a kilo, an expensive commodity when even the smallest maker I spoke to uses 20kg a week.

The fast-expanding business of Iain Burnett, of the Highland Chocolatier in Grantully, Perthshire, describes the situation as "terrifying". For his own-recipe velvet truffles he already pays four times the price of other couverture chocolate (high quality chocolate that contains extra cocoa butter): his rare Sao Tome cocoa is sourced from a tiny island in the South Atlantic Ocean near South Africa.

He is now paying 30% more than last year, and he reckons something will have to give. It won't be quality - adding extra sugar, palm oil or artificial flavourings to help eke out the percentage of chocolate is out of the question for him and his customers, who include Gordon Ramsay's three-Michelin-starred Royal Hospital Road restaurant in London and first class international flights on a well-known British airline - so he might have to accept his customer list may shrink.

He is taking the financial hit for now, but when current supplier contracts are up for renewal he may have to pass on higher costs to his customers.

For a micro-business such as Sebastian Kobelt's in Linlithgow, already miniscule margins are being dangerously squeezed. Formerly with The Kitchin and Castle Terrace restaurants in Edinburgh, he is supplying handcrafted high cocoa content chocolates and petits fours to the Gleneagles Hotel, and, in Edinburgh, the Balmoral and Scotsman hotels, and the Purslane restaurant, where he is about to launch a dessert-only tasting menu.

His preferred couverture cocoa is 70% Pur Noir by Cacao Barry (the best snaps on breaking and melts quickly in the mouth). The temptation to cut costs by buying cheaper chocolate is strong, but he is resisting it because he is aware of the delicate balance between profit and quality: the minute your integrity is sullied it is impossible to recover it, so he is mixing chocolates with a range of inventive fillings from foraged Scottish plants and berries to give added value.

Ruth Hinks, of Cocoa Black, Peebles, who buys up to 100kg of cocoa a week (and who this week represented the UK in the World Chocolate Masters competition in Paris) believes that if prices continue to rise in the next year then options for absorbing the price rise will run out.

If the market is set to polarise between the cheapest sugary confections and the most expensive, with nothing in between, are we to expect a further surge in the national obesity/diabetes stats? As we head into the festive period that is a sobering thought.

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