For me, Hershey’s chocolate has a sour tinge to it. I don’t particularly care for Hershey’s Kisses or chocolate bars for that reason. Apparently I’m not the only person who’s noticed this; not only do Takeout commenters bring up this complaint on the regular (we see you!), but according to this 2017 article from The Daily Mail, this sour flavor I’ve been noticing all these years is the presence of butyric acid. Butyric acid can be found in parmesan cheese, spoiled butter, and, wait for it...vomit.
HuffPost goes into great detail about how butyric acid shows up in Hershey’s chocolate specifically. What’s complicated is that butyric acid isn’t an added ingredient to Hershey’s chocolate, according to their spokesperson—so where does it come from?
First off, butyric acid is naturally occurring. It can be found in your gut, as it’s a fatty acid that is a byproduct of bacteria breaking down dietary fiber. You’ll find it in lots of foods, including red meat, sauerkraut, and even vegetable oil. And it’s added to food and perfume, too; some of its molecules smell like pear, pineapple, apricot, and apple.
According to this 2000 article from Penn State News, the butyric acid comes from not the chocolate, but the milk in the chocolate. As fatty acids in milk decompose, in a process called lipolysis, you’ll end up with that rancid taste. The article says that Hershey’s deliberately puts its chocolate through that process, giving it that signature divisive flavor. This means that even if butyric acid isn’t being added, it’s something that can show up as part of the chocolate making process.
Hershey’s keeps its chocolate-making techniques a tightly controlled secret. Different methods and different ingredients could certainly yield a milk chocolate that’s less, well, vomity. So why stick to this formula, knowing perfectly well that there’s a sour flavor in it?
Author Michael D’Antonio of Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, suggests that it’s all about brand consistency.
Part of the process to achieve this stability and year-round accessibility, D’Antonio said, involved spoiling the milk. This would be just to the point where the spoiling wouldn’t happen in the actual chocolate: the milk was safe and the chocolate’s flavor and quality was sustained. This method produced milk chocolate with that slight hint of tang. This product, with this flavor, came to be what Americans knew and loved as chocolate, providing the Hershey’s brand with a formula they’d stick with for consistency.
I guess consistency and brand loyalty goes a long way. I highly recommend reading the entire HuffPost piece, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff in it, like how Hershey’s chocolate set the stage for American chocolate preferences and has likely influenced the way you think about the sweet treat.