It is one of the most popular types of food anywhere in the world and the subject of so many cravings.
There is just something different about chocolate. For many people – even thinking about chocolate can be pleasurable – and there are plenty of strong chocoholics out there.
But what’s so special about chocolate? More importantly, does chocolate have to be a guilty pleasure or can it offer some health benefits?
The short answer is that chocolate can actually help health and the most interesting area to look is at dark chocolate health benefits.
Want the short answer? Skip straight to the recommended brands!
An Introduction to Chocolate
Chocolate comes from the cacao tree (Theobromoa cacao), which is native to South America and Central America. Cacao is now commonly cultivated in many countries on and around the equator – partially due to the popularity of the final product.
Historically, cacao beans were so valuable that they were even used as currency and there are indications that cacao was used as early as around 500 AD by the Mayan civilization.
Cacao wasn’t exactly an immediate hit with the Europeans, particularly because they were introduced to unsweetened drinking chocolate, which tends to be very bitter.
With the sweetening of cacao, drinking chocolate became a more common drink and cacao beans became more common in general.
This also led to a lot of experimentation about how to use cacao, eventually leading to the modern form of chocolate that is common today.
In modern times, you can find chocolate just about anywhere, in many different types, brands and flavors.
Not only is chocolate itself common, but chocolate flavoring is used in a huge number of things – including both food and non-food products.
In fact, the rising consumption of chocolate along with a range of other factors has led to concerns about a shortage in the supply of cocoa and thus chocolate (1).
Generally speaking, chocolate can be broken down into three key varieties: white, milk and dark.
In all cases, the manufacturing process involves separating out the cocoa bean solids away from the remaining fatty content.
In the case of milk and dark chocolate, these solids are re-added later on, but for white chocolate they aren’t.
Technically speaking, this difference means that white chocolate is actually considered a chocolate derivative rather than actual chocolate.
For dark chocolate and milk chocolate, the biggest differences are the amount of milk and cocoa present in the chocolate.
Typically, dark chocolate will often have high cocoa percentages, often ranging from 65% to 90% - which gives the chocolate a more bitter taste overall.
Traditionally milk chocolate has been the clear favorite among consumers, with more than half of consumers stating that milk chocolate is their first choice:
These numbers are interesting, because this is a change towards dark chocolate, with more people preferring dark chocolate than ever before.
This isn’t actually too surprising.
After all, dark chocolate does actually offer some pretty significant health benefits and people are starting to become aware of this.
This article is a comprehensive overview of dark chocolate, including the outcomes of the latest scientific research about dark chocolate health benefits.
Dark Chocolate Benefits
Blood Sugar and Diabetes
You might intuitively think that any link between dark chocolate and blood sugar would involve an increase in blood sugar levels, but this isn’t actually the case.
Researchers argue that dark chocolate may help the body to make better use of insulin, allowing for better overall control of blood sugar levels (2).
Additionally, dark chocolate has a relatively low GI, meaning that it won’t significantly contribute to blood sugar spikes.
Flavanols in dark chocolate have been linked to decreased blood pressure and improved insulin sensitivity (3).
The authors of the study argued that because of this, flavanols from cocoa could offer benefits to cardiovascular health if part of a balanced diet.
However, a study on healthy, overweight and obese subjects found that while polyphenol-rich was associated with improved outcomes (including those related to cardiovascular risk factors), the polyphenol-poor had the potential to create adverse effects (4).
This reinforces the concept that milk chocolate (typically polyphenol-poor) does not have the same health benefits as dark chocolate.
It also indicates the importance of high cocoa chocolate where the polyphenols remain intact.
However, one recent study did show that dark chocolate had no impacts on blood pressure (5), suggesting that more research is needed.
It’s also important to note that you can eat dark chocolate even if you have diabetes (6).
In fact, dark chocolate can be a fantastic way to get a sweet snack and ward off sugar cravings for people with diabetes.
One study even indicated that dark chocolate could help to lower HbA1c levels in children (7).
Likewise, another study indicated a inverse relationship between chocolate consumption and type 2 diabetes (so more chocolate was associated with a lower likelihood of diabetes) (8).
But, this outcome was only true for younger men and normal-body-weight men.
However, as with everything, diabetics need pay attention to how much dark chocolate they consume, both in terms of sugar and calorie content.
Chocolate is high in saturated fat, so it is often assumed that eating chocolate will result in increases in cholesterol.
However, research indicates that the consumption of flavanol-rich dark chocolate can lower the level of LDL and increase the level of HDL in the blood, both desirable outcomes (9).
This particular study compared people eating dark chocolate to those eating white chocolate, showing that white chocolate doesn’t have the same significant health benefits.
Another study found similar outcomes when looking at dark chocolate consumption in women affected by normal weight obese (NWO) syndrome (10).
Indeed, many studies have linked regular consumption of polyphenols from cocoa with improvements in cardiovascular health and reduction in inflammation (11)
For example, one comprehensive study examined almost 20,000 participants across a four-year period, looking at their dietary intake.
In this study eating chocolate, in general, was associated with a reduction in the risk of heart disease. This outcome was connected to the ability for chocolate to reduce blood pressure (12).
In general, the polyphenols in dark chocolate have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory characteristics, and these can both play a significant role in protecting against cardiovascular disease and other significant diseases (13).
This suggests that dark chocolate may be much more beneficial for improving cardiovascular health than milk chocolate.
It's also important to note that we don't fully understand all of the mechanisms involved in dark chocolate's impact on heart health (15).
That isn't surprising, as there are many different compounds in dark chocolate, which creates the potential for a large number of different interactions.
An observational study linked the consumption of high amounts of flavanols with increased blood flow in the brain and improved performance and general alertness (16).
A second study indicated that chocolate could help to promote attention (17).
An experimental double-blind study on 30 healthy adults found a similar impact, with high amounts of flavanols having a significant positive impact on mental performance (18).
However, not all studies agree with this outcome.
Another study looked at cognition in healthy middle-aged individuals. In this particular study, participants were given dark chocolate drinks for a period of 30 days. The dark chocolate drinks contained either 500 mg, 250 mg or 0 mg of polyphenols from dark chocolate.
The authors found that there was no significant difference in cognitive performance across the three groups (19).
For older people with impaired blood flow, research also suggests that regular cocoa consumption can improve cognitive functions.
Another study found that high levels of flavanol helped to improve cognition for urban children who were highly exposed to air pollution because of where they lived (22).
Overall, the outcomes of these studies suggest that there remains a long way to go before the relationship between dark chocolate (and flavanol) consumption and brain function can be fully understood.
However, there is some indication that dark chocolate may be important for cognition in vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and at-risk children.
There even remains the potential for dark chocolate to boost brain function for normal adults, but this is the area with the most conflicting results.
In general, people often associate chocolate with being in a good mood.
For example, you might eat chocolate when you are feeling down or when something stressful has happened.
In fact, many people crave chocolate in challenging situations.
But, does chocolate actually help?
One study looked at this, using dark chocolate drinks containing polyphenols.
The study found high doses of polyphenols acted to improve mood overall, contributing to higher levels of calmness and contentedness (23).
It’s also likely that dark chocolate (like chocolate itself) improves mood simply because it is a treat and because people expect it to improve their mood.
For some people, eating chocolate at a time when they are stressed or down can be a way of subconsciously taking control over their own emotions.
Consumption of flavanols (a key compound in dark chocolate) as part of the diet has been associated with a decrease in risk of death from stroke, heart disease and cancer (26).
In fact, that last outcome has been found not only in independent studies, but also in a meta-analysis that considered the outcomes of 13 different studies (29).
One of the challenging aspects of studying the relationship of dark chocolate and/or flavanol consumption with cardiovascular health is the calories involved in chocolate.
Often, people who consume chocolate on a regular basis can have a higher level of calorie intake than people who do not or are just less conscious of their health.
That can act as a confounding factor in observational studies and even in experimental studies because the differences in calorie consumption have to be controlled for in some way.
Body Function and Performance
As we’ve seen, dark chocolate can offer some protective benefits against disease – although it isn’t a wonder drug.
There has also been some interest in whether dark chocolate can help improve metabolism or sports performance.
One study into this area looked at the performance of male cyclists.
The authors of the study noted that the consumption of dark chocolate did have impacts on the blood chemistry of the athletes, but there were no significant effects on cycling performance (30).
While the research into this particular topic area has been very limited, the potential for dark chocolate to help in this way is fascinating.
Learn More About Dark Chocolate Benefits
The list above highlights many key benefits of dark chocolate. But, the research is ongoing and we're learning more as time goes on. Plus, some areas are more complex and more heavily researched than others.
Because of this, you can check out the articles below for additional details on how dark chocolate can impact health.
Why is Dark Chocolate Healthy?
I’ve shown you some dark chocolate health benefits, but one of the biggest questions is why does dark chocolate have so many health benefits, when other types of chocolate don’t.
In reality, it isn’t a single thing that gives dark chocolate the health benefits that it offers. Instead, the health benefits come from a range of different factors.
Flavonoids and Flavanols
Many plant products contain compounds known as flavonoids.
These compounds have protective qualities, helping the plant to repair damage and protecting it from toxins in the environment.
Foods that have high levels of flavonoids have high amounts of antioxidant power. This can have many significant benefits for human health, including protecting the body against damage from free radicals and contaminants in the environment.
The most significant flavonoid present in chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, is flavanol.
As with other types of flavonoids, flavanol is an antioxidant, but it also associated with many of the other health advantages that dark chocolate has been linked to.
The importance of flavonoids for the health benefits of dark chocolate is one of the key reasons why milk chocolate doesn’t offer the same health benefits.
This also means that not all chocolate is created equal.
Chocolate tends to go through extensive processing and often this can destroy or minimize the amount of flavanols present.
The good news is that many chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep the flavanols, but you do still have to keep an eye on what chocolate you choose. Generally speaking, dark chocolate will have more flavanols than milk.
A second important flavonoid in dark chocolate is epicatechin. This is a particularly active compound, and it plays a key role in preventing the gathering of cholesterol in the blood vessels. As such, epicatechin has the potential to reduce the risk of blood clots and clogged arteries (31).
As I mentioned previously, the flavonoids in dark chocolate have antioxidant properties.
There has been a lot of emphasis on antioxidants in recent years because they have been associated with a number of health benefits.
The importance of antioxidants is related to the presence of reactive oxygen intermediates (ROIs), a category that includes free radicals.
ROIs are formed in the body naturally to a degree and do have important roles within the body.
However, there are also things that can increase ROIs to a much higher level.
This is a concerning pattern, because these compounds can cause significant oxidative damage to the body, and play a role in the development of many diseases, in decreases in immune system strength and in damage to DNA.
The role of ROIs and oxidative damage has even been linked to many of the negative aspects of aging.
Antioxidants have the potential to protect against this type of damage helping to promote good health and reduce the risk of disease (32).
For example, research has linked the consumption of dark chocolate to reductions in oxidative stress (33), which is a very important role of antioxidants and is linked to many potential health benefits.
The site Lean It Up also offers more detailed information about what antioxidants are and how they work. This can provide more insight into why antioxidants are so important.
Chocolate, Stomach Bacteria and the Gut
Recent research has revealed an additional reason why dark chocolate is associated with so many health benefits.
In the stomach, microbes such as lactic acid bacteria and Bifidobacterium ferment dark chocolate to produce antioxidants and chemicals that help to reduce inflammation. These chemicals can help to improve the health of the heart (34,35).
Vitamins and Minerals
Dark chocolate contains a significant amount of vitamins and minerals, which is one of the key reasons that it contributes so strongly to health.
Some of the key nutrients in dark chocolate include:
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin B12
Getting nutrients into your diet is always important, particularly as people often do not get enough nutrients through their diet.
For dark chocolate, one of the more significant nutrients may be iron, because many people, particularly females, do not get enough of this in their diet.
Dark Chocolate for Weight Loss
The idea of using chocolate for weight loss sounds like a dream come true – but there is actually some truth to it.
Much of this is dependent on how much dark chocolate you actually eat.
For example, eating a couple of bars of dark chocolate per day isn’t going to help you lose weight, but having a few squares a couple of times a week just might.
In fact, a randomized study showed that the consumption of dark chocolate following a meal resulted in increased satiation, decreased hunger and decreased interest in eating sweet, savory or fatty foods. The same outcome was not found for milk chocolate (36).
The study also found that the people who ate dark chocolate consumed less energy in their next meal than those who did not.
Another study examined the impact of dark chocolate consumption on a subsequent meal.
This study involved 25 participants and used a randomized crossover design.
The authors of the study found that dark chocolate consumption did not have any impact on satiety in participants. However, the study did find that the people consuming dark chocolate did eat less in the following meal (37).
The data for energy consumption from the two studies looked like this:
The differences between the studies are due to a number of factors, including differences in experimental design and sample population. Yet, in both cases, there is a clear (and statistically significant) difference in food consumption between the milk and the dark chocolate groups.
In both cases, the energy intake is from an ad libitum meal that occurred sometime after the chocolate consumption.
During this meal, participants were able to eat what they wanted to, but their energy intake was recorded.
This can be particularly important for people who have trouble controlling a sweet tooth or people trying not to eat too much in a meal.
What About the Fat in Chocolate?
Chocolate does have a lot of fat in it and that’s one of the reasons it’s considered to be so unhealthy.
In particular, more than half of the fat in dark chocolate is saturated fat, which tends to concern people.
I’ve talked about saturated fat in detail in other articles on this site, and it isn’t actually as bad for health as is generally implied.
However, for chocolate, particularly for dark chocolate, the saturated fat information is misleading.
For dark chocolate, the majority of the fat comes from cocoa butter. In fact, you want to be picking chocolate that doesn’t add in any other sources of fat.
Cocoa butter is particularly interesting, because it doesn’t have the expected impact on the body.
This is due to the presence of a rather unusual saturated fat – stearic acid.
In fact, the fat composition of cocoa butter actually looks like this:
The difference is important, because stearic acid is an exception in the world of saturated fat.
In fact, there is even a call for stearic acid to be separated from saturated fat in nutritional labels and dietary recommendations because it simply does not behave the same.
Because of these factors, the saturated fat in dark chocolate isn’t as significant as it seems.
You can also find more detail about saturated fat and why it may be healthy from Wellness Mama. She covers the topic well and has important insight into the area.
Dark Chocolate versus Normal Chocolate
When it comes to losing weight, managing cravings can be one of the most challenging things.
Craving chocolate is particularly common, and one of the reasons for this may be the presence of theobromine (38).
Having dark chocolate can be a way of satisfying this craving and also for satisfying a general craving for sugar.
Dark chocolate can actually be particularly effective in this role because how bitter it is.
This bitterness makes it more difficult to eat a lot of chocolate in a sitting and people often find that they get satisfied from dark chocolate much faster than milk chocolate.
For example, you would really have to work at eating a large bar of dark chocolate, but for most of us, this would be very easy to do with milk chocolate.
This means that dark chocolate can be an effective way curbing cravings in a healthy way – particularly as dark chocolate has a lower level of sugar than milk chocolate.
This means that dark chocolate health benefits aren’t the only reason that you should consider having some on occasion.
How and When to Eat Dark Chocolate
For some people, chocolate is a treat – it’s something to have when they want a pick-me-up or when they feel like rewarding themselves.
For others, chocolate is a way of feeling better – like if they are down or if they need a burst of energy.
Chocolate is also a snack, a cooking ingredient, a gift or many other things.
But… if you are wanting the health benefits from chocolate, how much should you be eating and when?
Picking the Right Chocolate
If you want your chocolate fix to come with health benefits, then you need to be careful what chocolate you pick out.
As I mentioned before, the fat in chocolate comes from cocoa butter, which is relatively healthy.
However, some chocolate manufacturers also add other sources of fat to their chocolate, which changes the fat profile considerably.
Figuring this out involves looking at the ingredients list of the chocolate and seeing what the chocolate contains.
In particular, keep an eye out for the phrase ‘processed with alkali’ anywhere on the product label.
This phase refers to a specific manufacturing process, also known as Dutching. The process breaks down the flavanols in cocoa, which decreases the amount of flavanols in the final chocolate product.
For example, you can see this phrase here, in the ingredients list for 90% cocoa chocolate:
The same phrase is also present for both dark and milk varieties of Dove chocolate:
In general, the more mainstream a chocolate bar is, the more likely it is to use the dutching technique, but you should always double check.
Because much of the health benefit of dark chocolate comes from these flavanols, you need to be looking for dark chocolate with as much flavanol as possible. This means you want to avoid anything that uses the phrase ‘processed with alkali’.
On that note, another thing to pay attention to is the amount of cocoa.
The majority of the flavanols in chocolate come from the cocoa itself, so picking chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa means that you get more health benefits.
Ideally, you should be looking at chocolate with that is at least 70% cocoa, if not higher. Generally speaking, the higher the cocoa concentration, the more flavanols in the chocolate – although this will differ somewhat depending on brand and manufacturing process.
Type of chocolate is another thing to consider.
You probably aren’t going to get too many health benefits from choosing caramel filled dark chocolate or something like that.
With chocolate, any extra ingredients are going to change its nutrient profile. This can decrease the health benefits of chocolate and make it little more than a sweet snack.
Because of this, it is best to stick to plain dark chocolate.
While there has been a lot of research into potential health benefits from dark chocolate, studies have varied widely in the serving sizes of chocolate as well as in the frequency of consumption.
In fact, some of the studies have used cocoa products with much higher levels of flavanols than is generally found in commercial chocolate.
Other studies have looked at the benefits of flavanols, rather than chocolate itself.
This makes it difficult to recommend how much dark chocolate people should be eating.
One of the more common recommendations is to have two to three squares of chocolate a few times a week. At this frequency, the chocolate acts as a treat as well as a way to improve health.
You can even vary it up a bit, such as dipping fruit in melted dark chocolates, particularly those that also have low GI.
Alternatively, some people choose to eat dark chocolate every day, often one or two squares before or after dinner.
However, some studies have suggested much larger quantities of chocolate.
For example, one study looked at the health benefits of consuming a 1.6oz bar of dark chocolate (39).
That’s about the size of a Dove chocolate bar.
As a food, dark chocolate is pretty safe and very common.
So, there isn’t really an upper limit to how much you can eat.
Many of the studies of health benefits of flavanols and dark chocolate have focused on high amounts of flavanols.
Because of this, it does seem likely that more dark chocolate will offer more health benefits – however, this hasn’t really been tested.
However, chocolate is typically classified as a treat for a reason.
It is still relatively high in fat and sugar. So, if you eat a lot of it, you may be having more negative impacts on your health than positive ones.
The biggest thing with eating dark chocolate for health is paying attention to the calories and how it fits in with the rest of your diet.
Squares of Dark Chocolate
In talking about how much dark chocolate to have, I’ve been referring to squares of dark chocolate.
Generally speaking, this is a good way to measure, but it’s important to note that not all brands of dark chocolate have the same sized squares.
For example, the image on the right shows dark chocolate squares from three different brands.
Often, you will find that squares of dark chocolate are relatively large and thin like the two in the back of the image.
Many times the amount of chocolate in a single square is similar or the same, because both the thickness and the size differs.
In fact, it is relatively uncommon to find small and thick squares of chocolate like Dove offers (although some brands do have this).
There is a reason for this.
Dark chocolate has a pretty intense flavor, particularly the higher percentages.
Having a thin square of chocolate helps you to eat it slowly and savor the flavor.
Plus, it stops you from eating too much in a single bite. That’s actually pretty important, because if you’re not used to it, dark chocolate has quite a kick.
In the image above, the large and thin squares are between 10g and 12.5g a piece (depending on the brand), while the smaller square of chocolate is also close to 10g.
However, some dark chocolate uses entirely different sizes, like these pieces from Vital Choice:
In this case, the chocolate is a rectangle rather than a square and is around 14g.
So, when you are considering how much dark chocolate to have, squares are normally a good indication, but don’t forget that not all squares are equal.
Most of the health benefits of dark chocolate aren’t time specific. So, the time of day you eat dark chocolate doesn’t really matter.
However, we did previously discuss the way that dark chocolate can affect desire for sweet food and how much is eaten in later meals.
Because of this, it may be beneficial to eat dark chocolate a while before a meal or straight after one.
I have tried both ways and I normally choose to have between one and two squares of dark chocolate (depending on size) immediately following dinner.
This stops me craving snacks and seems to provide a signal to my body that I am done with eating for the night.
What works for you may be completely different.
The best approach is simply to take the time and find out what meets your needs.
Regardless of the timing, whenever you do have dark chocolate, you should take the time to enjoy it.
If you eat dark chocolate slowly and savor it, then one or two squares of chocolate is more than enough to satisfy most people.
However, if you eat it quickly, then you may find yourself wanting more or just missing out on the experience.
Storing and Using Dark Chocolate
Like many foods, the chemical composition of dark chocolate changes when it is heated and this can affect the dark chocolate health benefits.
In particular, when dark chocolate is melted and then re-hardened (resulting in bloomed chocolate), some of the health advantages of the chocolate are lost.
One study on this topic found that when dark chocolate was bloomed, it retained its beneficial effects on lipid parameters.
However, the bloomed chocolate reduced the antioxidant capacity of the chocolate (40) – which is one of the key health benefits of dark chocolate.
This suggests that you should keep chocolate in a cool place to make sure you get the maximum health benefits.
Likewise, some research suggests that it is important to keep chocolate at a consistent temperature to prevent blooming (41).
You can store dark chocolate in the fridge or the freezer without damaging its health content.
If you do store your chocolate in the fridge or the freezer, it’s best to let it come to room temperature slowly. Otherwise, condensation forms and this can damage the chocolate.
You do also want to be eating chocolate at room temperature, as the taste does not disperse as well when the chocolate is cold.
Another thing to consider when storing dark chocolate is moisture.
Dark chocolate needs to be protected from moisture, as this can damage it.
Ideally, this means that you should store it in an airtight container, even if this is just a zip lock back with the air pressed out of it.
Answers to Common Questions
Why Does Some Chocolate Have No Percentage Marked?
One confusing aspect about dark chocolate is the level of cocoa.
Most of the time dark chocolate will have a percentage of cocoa specified somewhere on the packet.
There is no requirement for the percentage of cocoa to be expressed on dark chocolate, so sometimes you will see dark chocolate without this information on it.
Generally speaking, you should avoid chocolate that does this.
There has been this huge emphasis towards dark chocolate in recent years, with consumers often looking for dark chocolate with high percentages of cocoa.
As we’ve talked about previously – the higher the percentage, the better for your health.
Companies know this, and that’s why you see the percentage cocoa displayed prominently most of the time.
If you see chocolate that doesn’t show this information, most of the time their cocoa concentration isn’t something they want to admit to.
In fact, in the United States there is no official definition of what dark chocolate even is. So, companies sometimes simply label their chocolate as dark chocolate because it is darker than another part of their line.
Dove chocolate is a perfect example of this:
It’s very unlikely that the cocoa in this type of chocolate bar is anywhere near what you would be looking for to improve your health.
What Percentage Cocoa Should I Choose?
All else being equal, a higher percentage of cocoa means more health benefits.
However, sometimes you find that the chocolate with high concentrations of cocoa uses the dutching technique of manufacturing.
That was actually the case with the block of chocolate to the right – even though the chocolate is from a pretty good brand.
So, despite the high level of cocoa in this particular chocolate, it wouldn’t be a good choice.
Another thing to consider is personal preference.
Dark chocolate with very high levels of cocoa, like 86% or 90% tend to be very bitter and have quite an intense taste.
For many people this is enjoyable, particularly if you eat the chocolate slowly.
However, it is an acquired taste, and not everyone likes it.
If you do have a problem with the taste of high cocoa chocolate, I would suggest trying something lower. After all, you can always progress onto higher percentages later.
In general, you want to be looking for chocolate that is at least 60% cocoa concentration, but ideally 70%.
Fortunately, these are very common levels.
What is Cacao?
If you’ve spent time looking at the percentages on dark chocolate, you might have noticed that some companies say cocoa while others say cacao
So, what’s the difference between the two?
In this context, there really isn’t a difference.
It may simply be that some companies choose to use the term cacao because they think it makes them seem more refined or different than their competitors.
In reality, the term cacao comes from the scientific name of the cocoa plant, which is Theobroma cacao. Most of the time the plant is just called cocoa, which is why the bean of the plant is referred to as the cocoa bean.
So, a percentage of cocoa refers to how much of the chocolate comes from the cocoa bean.
In contrast, the percentage of cacao refers to how much of the chocolate comes from the cacao plant. In practice, that just refers to the bean as well.
So… both cocoa and cacao percentages are actually measuring the same thing.
This means that you can directly compare the percentage of cocoa with the percentage of cacao and simply look for the chocolate with the highest overall percentage.
Is Organic or Fair Trade Chocolate Better?
Picking dark chocolate in general can be confusing, because you have to pay attention to cocoa percentage, the manufacturing process and then there are organic and fair trade aspects to consider.
As is normally the case, organic dark chocolate tends to involve fewer chemicals in the growing process and more natural ingredients overall.
The difference between organic and non-organic chocolate in terms of health benefits isn’t an area that has been strongly studied, yet it is likely that organic chocolate does offer some health benefits over regular chocolate.
In contrast, the fair trade label doesn’t have that much impact on the taste or nutrition of the chocolate itself.
Fair trade is an important label, because the chocolate industry is associated with a large amount of slavery and labor abuse.
The fair trade system typically involves consumers paying extra for products, but that extra money is used to make sure that the people involved in the chocolate supply chain actually get fairly compensated for their work.
So, the fair trade label might not help your health, but it does tend to be an ethical decision.
However, having the fair trade label doesn’t stop companies from behaving in other unethical ways.
This means that it is worth looking into the company before purchasing if you are interested in making sure that your chocolate doesn’t exploit others.
What about Dark Chocolate in Hot Drinks or Cooking?
Some of the studies on the health benefits of dark chocolate did look at consumption in the form of hot drinks rather than as chocolate itself.
Some of these studies did show health benefits, suggesting that you can have dark chocolate in this way (particularly useful in the winter months).
However, if you are going to do this, you have to find a brand of dark chocolate hot chocolate mix that doesn’t use the dutching process in manufacturing.
For example, the product on the right might look appealing (and it is from a good brand), yet the cocoa in the product is processed with alkali.
By extension, you can also use dark cocoa in cooking, but again, you have to look for cocoa that has not been processed using alkali.
Finding this involves taking the time to actually read ingredients lists for the products you are interested in. Thankfully, Amazon often has the ingredient label listed for food products, making the process much easier.
One option with considerable potential is CocoaVia. The products from this brand are high in flavanols, so they may offer many more health benefits overall.
However, when it comes to using dark chocolate in cooking or for hot drinks, I suggest sticking with cocoa (or hot chocolate mix), rather than using actual chocolate.
If you use actual chocolate, the cooking process will normally involve melting it, which can have an impact on some of the health benefits of the chocolate.
Does Dark Chocolate Have Milk?
Whether or not dark chocolate has milk really depends on the specific brand.
For example, this is the nutritional information for a bar of Dove chocolate. The highlighted word milkfat is an indication that there is some milk in the chocolate.
In contrast, here are the ingredients from a 90% bar of Lindt chocolate:
In this case, the list is shorter and the Lindt chocolate contains no mention of milk fat.
A third example is from Ghirardeli, and again, milk fat is present.
If you are concerned about milk in your chocolate, then you will need to double-check any brand and any specific flavor that you buy. It won’t be obvious whether milk is used just from the label.
Also, companies often change their formulas, so you will need to keep an eye on the ingredients even if you have used the product in the past.
Is Dark Chocolate Vegan?
Again, this depends on the specific brand and product.
You will need to keep an eye on the added ingredients in dark chocolate to see whether any animal products are included.
The biggest one to watch out for is milk, which you see as milk fat in the ingredients list.
Some manufacturers will specifically list their chocolate as vegan and there is a growing number of companies that create vegan chocolate.
However, if they don’t, looking at the labels is the best way to go.
If you’re doing this, don’t forget that cocoa butter isn’t actually butter in the traditional sense, and does not contain any animal products.
Is Dark Chocolate Paleo?
Whether you consider dark chocolate to be paleo probably depends on your exact interpretation of the diet – because there is a lot of variation.
To start off with, it is highly unlikely that our Paleolithic ancestors ate chocolate, however, it is also unlikely that they ate many of the complex recipes that people make while on the paleo diet either.
Dark chocolate is actually an area frequently debated in relation to paleo and it really is a grey area.
Some elements of dark chocolate do cause some concern, such as soy lecithin, but for the most part, paleo followers do choose to indulge in dark chocolate.
If you are following paleo, eating dark chocolate isn’t going to kill your diet, but picking a high percentage of cocoa is best.
Dark Chocolate versus Milk Chocolate
We talked about fat before, but how does dark chocolate stack up in terms of overall nutrition?
This is a little bit brand specific, because each brand has slight variations in their approach.
The above images are from Lindt Dark (90%) Chocolate (on the left) and Lindt Milk Chocolate (on the right). The discussion below also focuses on these two examples.
- Serving Size: For both dark and milk chocolate the serving size is roughly 40g with between 2.5 and 3 servings per container.
- Calories: Calories are almost identical between the chocolate types.
- Calories from Fat: In dark chocolate, more calories come from fat than in milk chocolate.
- Protein: Identical across the two types of chocolate.
- Square Size: Dark chocolate tends to have larger and thinner squares of chocolate, while milk has smaller and thicker squares.
- Total Fat: Dark chocolate has higher total fat, most of which comes from the cocoa butter.
- Saturated Fat: 13 g in dark chocolate (65%) versus 8 g (40%) in milk chocolate. While dark chocolate does include more saturated fat, much of this includes stearic acid, which does not react like other saturated fat.
- Sodium: Much lower in dark chocolate - making dark chocolate better for people watching salt intake.
- Sugars: 22 g in milk chocolate versus 3 g in dark chocolate - making dark chocolate a good choice for diabetics and people watching blood sugar.
- Fiber: 5 g in dark chocolate and 1 g in milk chocolate.
- Cholesterol: 0 g in dark chocolate versus 10 g in milk chocolate.
- Calcium: Milk chocolate tends to be higher in calcium (10% versus 4%).
- Iron: Dark chocolate is higher in iron (15% versus 2%)
As you can see, one of the key differences between the two is fat. This isn’t something to be too concerned about, as we talked about earlier, because much of the fat in dark chocolate is stearic acid.
Additionally, as long as you take this fat into account in your diet, it is unlikely to be a major issue. Finally, dark chocolate might have more fat but it has less sugar, so this helps to balance the two out for weight loss.
Another difference is the fiber. This is very important as many of us don't get enough fiber in our diets.
Generally speaking, plain dark chocolate is going to be the healthiest. The main problem with other flavors of chocolate is that the amount of dark chocolate is decreased.
This is particularly true of fillings in chocolate, like caramel centers. It is also true for chocolate flavors that have large pieces like almonds in them.
A secondary problem is that fillings often add to the calories in the bar and rarely add to the health benefits.
If you don’t like plain dark chocolate, I would suggest looking for dark chocolate that has small pieces in it.
For example, Chocolove offers raspberries in dark chocolate (i.e. raspberry flakes, not filling).
For many people, having some flavoring does make the chocolate taste nicer. However, it is a tradeoff, because most of the time, chocolate with flavoring tends to have a lower cocoa concentration (55% for Chocolove).
However, some less common brands do manage to keep both the cocoa level and the flavor in there, such as the chocolate from Vital Choice.
Powerful Dark Chocolate Brands
There are many brands of dark chocolate out there, some better than others. You will have seen many of them on the shelves of grocery stores, while others are more popular in organic stores and the like.
Even if you know and trust a specific brand of chocolate, it’s still worth checking the label for manufacturing processes. You may also find that a brand will sometimes process with alkali and sometimes won’t.
When you are trying to pick healthy dark chocolate brands, looking at their nutritional information is one of the key elements. The list below highlights some of the best brands on the market right now. I also have a list of 6 common dark chocolate brands that are good health options.
Nutrition Facts: Endangered Species
As the name suggests, the Endangered Species brand strongly focuses on causes, along with the environment. This emphasis includes the use of fair trade beans.
The 88% version highlighted above has many key advantages. For one, it has passed independent testing through Consumer Labs. That testing found that the bar didn't have concerning levels of cadmium or lead, which some brands do.
These compounds are significant as they can have negative health implications, especially when consumed in large amounts. You can decrease their impacts by making sure you get enough iron, zinc and calcium in your diet (42). Even so, the healthiest option is to limit your exposure.
Consumer Labs also found that this was one of the best choices for flavanols versus calories. You can get a better outcome still by looking at 99% or even 100% cacao chocolate. But, such products tend to be very difficult to eat.
In contrast, this 88% bar is smooth and is likely to appeal to many more people.
The testing was just for this particular product, not all of the options from the brand. Even so, companies tend to use similar processes across their products. As a result, you could choose other flavors or percentages if you found them more appealing.
The range also includes various cocoa percentages and flavors. Some of these are more unusual options like Dark Chocolate with Pumpkin Spice & Almonds and Dark Chocolate with Lemon Poppy Seed. For anyone interested in cacao nibs, there is a Dark Chocolate with Cacao Nibs flavor.
Many of the flavored options are 72% cocoa, which gives you an appealing balance of flavor and benefits.
Nutrition Facts: Chocolove
The brand isn’t free trade or organic, but it does have three fair trade bars available. The company also has several other social responsibility and sustainability approaches that go beyond fair trade.
The chocolate does also use small squares.
This brand largely focuses on having a large range of different chocolate flavors, but does still have several different dark chocolate varieties, including 70% and 77%.
One issue with this brand is that because it has so many different varieties, most stores only stock a few of them. This can make it difficult to get the specific type you are looking for from stores. For example, the 70% is relatively common but 77% is much more difficult to find.
Additionally, the cocoa percentage of this brand doesn’t go all that high. The brand considers 77% to be extra strong dark chocolate and 70% to be strong dark chocolate, even though these values are a bit on the low end.
Even so, the brand is a cool one. They also sell mini bars in various types, including their 70% flavor. Those small bars are harder to find but they're perfect for portion control.
Nutrition Facts: Lindt Excellence 85%
Lindt is a huge brand that has a large range of different products and types of products. The line strongly focuses on luxury products, including the high fat truffles that are common as gifts.
However, the company does many dark chocolate options, including 70%, 85%, 90% and 99%.
This brand isn’t fair trade or organic and it uses the larger and thinner squares. For this brand, the 70% and 85% lines aren’t processed with alkali, but higher ranges are (currently). Of course, the manufacturing processes do tend to change over time.
This may be necessary to make the high concentration of cocoa actually taste any good. Regardless, if you are eating this brand for health benefits, you would want to stick to the 70% or the 85% line.
Nutrition Facts: Ghirardelli 86%
Like Lindt, this range focuses on luxury and isn’t fair trade or organic. This is also one of the brands that uses cacao instead of cocoa in its percentage – but this doesn’t change anything.
The lines of dark chocolate from this range are 60%, 72% and 86%.
The company does also have some flavored chocolate tagged as intense dark, but there is no specification of what percentage of cocoa is in the products.
The brand doesn’t appear to use processing with alkali in any of its key dark chocolate ranges.
If you aren’t looking for organic or fair trade chocolate, this brand can be a good choice because of its high cocoa percentage.
There are many other options for dark chocolate brands, both in stores and online.
In general, grocery stores tend to stock the larger and more well-known brands, while online stores and specialist stores tend to stock products from different brands.
For example, Vital Choice has a range of 80% organic dark chocolate, including some flavors such as wild blueberries and hazelnuts. It is relatively unusual approach – as you normally have to sacrifice cocoa concentration to get flavor in chocolate.
Nutrition Facts: Vital Choice 80%
Personally, I like the line, although it is one that you won’t find in stores – plus, they don’t dutch their chocolate.
I bought a medley of flavors from the company to review and was very impressed.
The chocolate tastes really good and is both organic and fair trade (which actually seems to be somewhat unusual – most chocolate brands are one or the other or none).
They are smaller bars than you would normally find from a grocery store, but if you are eating a few squares of dark chocolate a day, it is enough to last quite some time.
At the end of the day, your best approach for finding the best chocolate is to look around and pay careful attention to the labels.
Which works best for you will probably depend on your own tastes, as well as whether you are looking for organic or fair trade.
If you're interested in the nutrients, the table below compares the various products.
Swipe right to view more columns
Remember that each brand offers multiple products. These will each be different nutritionally. As a general rule, as you go higher in cocoa concentration the amount of sugar tends to decrease and the chocolate becomes more intense.
It can often take trial and error to determine which product is best suited to your preferences.
Summary and Final Thoughts
There aren’t all that many foods that can be both a treat and offer health benefits – and dark chocolate is one of them.
However, there are still negative aspects of chocolate, particularly the amount of sugar and calories that it contains.
This means that if you are eating large amounts of chocolate (dark, milk or white) every day, then you are doing far more harm to your health than anything.
Yet, if you have dark chocolate in moderation, it can be important addition to a healthy diet.
After all, dark chocolate offers many direct health benefits, including protection against some diseases, improved mood and potential improvements to brain function and physical performance.
The indirect effects of dark chocolate are equally important, such as how it can decrease how much people are likely to eat at their next meal and how much they crave sugar.
This can potentially contribute to weight loss.
It is certainly true that more research is needed for many of the health benefits associated with dark chocolate.
In some cases, the studies that have been done were either flawed or relatively small in scope.
This means that researchers are not fully sure just how much dark chocolate benefits your health or all of the mechanisms behind its role in health.
However, at the end of the day, dark chocolate is a safe food and you can really choose how much or how little of it you include in your diet. As long as you take the calories of dark chocolate into account, even eating it regularly isn’t going to cause any harm.
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