Dark chocolate is incredibly healthy and nutritious.
However, there are many brands available and not all of them are created equal.
Some are better than others, based on the ingredients and processing methods.So which one should you choose?
Follow this guide to find out everything you need to know about selecting the best dark chocolate.
What Is Dark Chocolate?
Dark chocolate is produced by adding fat and sugar to cocoa. It differs from milk chocolate in that it contains little to no milk solids.
It also goes by other common names, including bittersweet and semisweet chocolate. These differ slightly in sugar content, but can be used interchangeably in cooking and baking.
Usually the simplest way to know if your chocolate is "dark" or not is to select one with a 70% or higher total cocoa content.
Dark chocolate is well known for its powerful antioxidant activity. In fact, it has been shown to have a greater antioxidant effect than many high-antioxidant fruits like blueberries and acai berries.
Observational studies have also linked eating dark chocolate with a reduced risk of heart disease and improved brain function.
BOTTOM LINE: Dark chocolate is a mixture of cocoa, fat and sugar. It is rich in antioxidants and may provide health benefits for the heart and brain.
Ingredients to Look For
It is best to choose dark chocolate made with as few ingredients as possible.
The best dark chocolate always has chocolate liquor or cocoa listed as the first ingredient. There may be several forms of cocoa listed, such as cocoa powder, cocoa nibs and cocoa butter. All of these are acceptable additions to dark chocolate.
Sometimes other ingredients are added to dark chocolate to improve its appearance, flavor and shelf life. Some of these ingredients are harmless, while others can have a negative impact on the overall quality of the chocolate.
Sugar is often added to dark chocolate to balance its bitter taste.
While sugar is an important component of dark chocolate, some brands go overboard.
It is rare to find dark chocolate that doesn't have added sugar. A rule of thumb is to choose a brand that does not have sugar listed first on the ingredients list.
Better yet, choose one that lists sugar last.
Note that the higher the cocoa percentage, the lower the sugar content will be.
Lecithin is an optional ingredient in dark chocolate. It's added to many store-bought chocolates as an emulsifier. It keeps the cocoa and cocoa butter from separating and helps blend flavors.
It is commonly derived from soybeans, so you may see it listed as soy lecithin on the label. Soy lecithin is used in such small amounts in chocolate that it shouldn't pose any concerns about health effects or quality.
When you're selecting a brand, keep in mind that lecithin isn't absolutely necessary to make chocolate.
High-quality dark chocolate shouldn't have any milk added to it.
The only exception would be milk fat. This is essentially butter that has had its moisture and non-fat solids removed.
Chocolate makers sometimes add milk fat to dark chocolate to soften it and add flavor.
Just like lecithin, milk fat is not required to make dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate is often flavored with spices, extracts and oils to improve its taste.
The most common flavoring you will see in dark chocolate is vanilla.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to differentiate on a food label which flavors are natural and which are artificial.
If you want flavored dark chocolate, choose one that is organic. That way you can be sure the flavors are not artificial.
If you come across dark chocolate that contains trans fat, avoid it. Trans fat consumption is a significant risk factor for heart disease.
Although it's becoming less common to add trans fat to chocolate, manufacturers sometimes add it to improve shelf life and consistency.
To make sure your chocolate doesn't include trans fat, check the ingredients list. If hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil is present, that means the bar contains trans fat.
BOTTOM LINE: Only a few ingredients are required to make dark chocolate. Avoid brands made with trans fats or large amounts of sugar.
The Optimal Cocoa Percentage
Dark chocolate brands have a wide range of cocoa percentages, which can be confusing. When you're choosing dark chocolate, look for bars that have a cocoa content of 70% or higher.
Higher-percentage dark chocolate contains a higher concentration of antioxidants and nutrients compared to chocolate with a lower cocoa percentage.
Consuming chocolate with a higher cocoa content is associated with several health benefits, such as improved heart health and brain function.
Chocolate with a higher cocoa percentage also tends to be lower in sugar.
BOTTOM LINE: The healthiest dark chocolate contains a cocoa percentage of 70% or higher, which provides more antioxidants and health benefits.
Avoid Alkalized or Dutched Dark Chocolate
Dutching is a chocolate processing method that involves treatment with alkali, otherwise known as alkalization.
This method is used to change the color of the chocolate and reduce the bitter flavor.
However, several studies have demonstrated that Dutching significantly reduces the amount of antioxidants in chocolate.
For this reason, chocolate that has been Dutched should be avoided.
To check whether chocolate has been Dutched, check the ingredients list for something along the lines of "cocoa processed with alkali."
BOTTOM LINE: A process called alkalization, also known as Dutching, has negative effects on the antioxidants in dark chocolate.
Choose Fair-Trade and Organic Chocolate
Choose chocolate made from fair-trade and organic cacao beans whenever possible.
Growing and harvesting cacao beans is a difficult process for the producers.
According to Fair Trade USA, you can ensure the cacao bean farmer earns a fair price for the product by buying fair-trade chocolate.
Choosing organic chocolate may also reduce your exposure to any artificial chemicals, or pesticides sprayed on the coffee beans.
BOTTOM LINE: Fair-trade and organic chocolate supports cacao farmers and reduces your exposure to pesticides and artificial chemicals.
The best dark chocolate has distinct characteristics, including the following:
- High in cocoa: 70% or higher cocoa percentage.
- Cocoa comes first: Cocoa or a form of cocoa is the first ingredient.
- No unnecessary ingredients: Avoid dark chocolate that contains trans fat, milk, artificial flavorings, high amounts of sugar and other unnecessary ingredients.
- No alkali processing: Alkali processing is also known as Dutching. Avoid chocolate processed this way.
- Fair-trade and organic: This type of dark chocolate is more likely to be high-quality, ethically sourced and pesticide-free.
Follow these tips to make sure your dark chocolate is high-quality, rich in antioxidants and of course, delicious.