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- Attributes of the best dark chocolate
- High cocoa contents clearly displayed on the label
- Least processed
- Least amount of sugar
- Non-Alkalized (non-Dutch processed)
- Avoid chocolate with trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils
- Least amount of ingredients
- Other points to consider while choosing your perfect chocolate
There are several important rules when choosing the best dark chocolate. If you follow these few rules, you will be able to enjoy the best quality and the healthiest chocolates on the market, regardless of the brand. New chocolate brands and products pop up every year, so it makes more sense to learn how to pick your chocolate basing your decision on their properties, rather than somebody else’s taste and preferences.
Dark chocolate has seen its popularity grow exponentially in recent years, mainly due to mounting scientific evidence of its wide range of health benefits.
Following this trend, numerous varieties of dark chocolate started to appear in the market, and now we can get chocolates with almost any amount of cocoa contents ranging from 35% to even 100%.
FDA naming requirements depend on the amount and proportion of some ingredients, such as chocolate liquor, milk solids, sugar or cocoa butter.
Attributes of the best dark chocolate
Generally, the most health-beneficial cocoa products are (in this order):
- raw cocoa beans
- cocoa nibs
- unsweetened cocoa powder with a high ratio of non-fat cocoa solids
- high cocoa solids dark chocolates
The least processed the cocoa beans are, the more health properties they possess. Unfortunately, they may be less palatable. Check health benefits of dark chocolate here.
For most people, eating a high cocoa dark chocolate is a compromise between great health benefits and an enjoyable experience.
Most important rules when selecting the best dark chocolate
Choose chocolates with high cocoa contents clearly displayed on the label
The following is a list of cocoa products, sorted from the highest to the lowest amount of antioxidant activity, total polyphenols and procyanidins (3):
- Cocoa powder
- Baking chocolates (low sugar or unsweetened)
- Dark chocolates
- Baking chips
- Milk chocolate and syrups
Overall, the key points of high cocoa chocolates are that:
- They contain higher amounts of cocoa solids (at least 35%) and are called Dark Chocolate (also called bittersweet or semisweet) or in some brands, Cooking Chocolate.
- The packaging of best dark chocolate products (finer dark chocolates) clearly displays the cocoa solids percentage, such as in the following image. If this information is not displayed, it may indicate a high percentage of sugar.
This percentage represents the combination of both cocoa butter and polyphenol-rich non-fat cocoa solids.
- The higher the proportion of the solids to butter, the healthier the chocolate is.
Cocoa percentage information such as in the image above with 70% cacao, includes both non-fat cocoa solids and butter.
The ratio, however, of fat to non-fat in this amount is usually not displayed, since it’s a part of the brand’s secret recipe, rather than a legal labelling requirement.
This means that the cocoa percentage is not a completely reliable indication of the antioxidant and polyphenols concentration. Some chocolates with 70% cocoa may be higher in polyphenols for instance, than a 90% chocolate.
- The premium/fine ones with a high cocoa percentage are usually more expensive, since they use more, high quality cocoa components rather than cheaper ingredients, such as sugar or milk solids.
- They tend to be more bitter (due to a high concentration of flavonoids) and considered less palatable.
- Extra cocoa butter is often added to achieve an extra smooth texture and a milder taste (less bitter).
- They have a low Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load.
Chocolates with 70% or more cocoa, have an insignificant effect on blood sugar.
TIP:how do you find the most optimal cocoa percentage for your individual taste?
Chocolates with a high cocoa percentage tend to be bitter. In addition, the amount of sweets that you are normally accustomed to, also influences your taste for the level of sweetness of chocolate.
To get used to the taste of dark chocolate, pick one with the highest possible cocoa content that you can still enjoy, due to its bitterness.
For instance, you might start with a 60% – 70% cocoa chocolate.
After a few weeks of getting used to to it, try a higher cocoa content chocolate (e.g. 78%) for another few weeks.
Repeat this process, until you find your optimum cocoa concentration.
After a while, you may start noticing a change in your palate. This is good because it means that you are getting accustomed to less sweet foods!
- The best dark chocolate products’ labels display a high percentage (usually 70% or higher) of cocoa contents.
- The higher the cocoa solid contents, the healthier the chocolate. However, it also more bitter.
- Aim for the highest percentage cocoa content that is still enjoyable to eat and then gradually increase the proportion of cocoa.
Choose the least processed chocolate
The amount of polyphenols is more than 10 times higher in non-processed cocoa beans than in processed cocoa products. As mentioned before, most of the health benefits from chocolate are derived from this component.
However, due to their bitterness, unprocessed cocoa nibs are not for everybody. Their taste is derived from the substances formed between flavonols and salivary proteins. (4).
Most chocolate products available are highly processed and additional flavors are added to mask the bitterness. However, they reduce its health quality.
High-cocoa chocolates are still a good alternative and the least processed, the better.
For instance, chocolate made just from cocoa liquor is a better choice than a highly processed chocolate product that has undergone alkalizing (Dutching process), which reduces the antioxidant and polyphenol activity.
- The best dark chocolate products are the least processed.
- For maximum health properties, choose chocolates that were least processed. Usually a chocolate with most basic cocoa ingredients (cocoa liquor, butter and low contents of sugar) is the least processed.
- TIP: get roasted cocoa beans and crush them yourself with the amount of sugar you prefer.
- This video shows a simple home method for the least processed chocolate!
Choose organic chocolate
Organic chocolate doesn’t contain preservatives, artificial colors, flavors, or genetically modified ingredients. (5) It is made of beans that are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
These restrictions also apply to all other ingredients present in chocolate, such as sugar, nuts or milk.
Organic chocolate uses simpler processing methods and fewer ingredients. This gives it a more natural taste and texture.
It is also clearly labelled on the packaging. In the U.S., since the organic products are approved by USDA, you will see this stamp on the label (6):
Please note that “Organic” does not necessary mean 100% organic. The legislation of labelling of organic products can vary, depending on the country.
The differences between organic labels for the U.S. can be found on this page of United States Department of Agriculture. Naming on the labels are dependent on the percentage of the non-organic components in the product.
- For better taste and to avoid harmful chemicals, buy organic chocolate.
Choose Fair-Trade chocolate
While the demand for chocolate continues growing world-wide, cocoa farmers remain some of the poorest people in the world. Child labor in cocoa production is quite common.
Fair-trade is an international social movement that helps farmers of developing countries to
achieve fair prices for their products, better working and trading conditions and sustainable farming.
- Buy fair-trade chocolate to help cocoa farmers and their communities.
Choose chocolates with the least amount of sugar
Most of the commercial chocolates available in the market are overloaded with sugar. Chocolates, such as milk chocolate and sweet and white chocolates, have no nutritional value and are loaded with sugar.
Unfortunately, it is also not possible to rely completely on dark chocolates. Not all of them are low in sugar, since the only requirement for a product to be called dark chocolate is for it to contain at least 35% cocoa solids. Most of the remainder can potentially be sugar.
The main concern with the sugar content in chocolate is its effect on the Glycemic Load.
The Glycemic Load of a 50g serving of a 50% cocoa chocolate is relatively low. This chocolate contains roughly 50% sugar.
However, to be on the safer side, especially for diabetics, the higher the cocoa percentage and the lower the sugar content, the better.
The ideal options are chocolates with 70% or more cocoa, since they have a very low sugar/low blood glucose impact.
Since high cocoa content has become a good selling point, labels usually clearly state the percentage of cocoa in the dark chocolates.
Additionally, some of these chocolates use natural sweeteners, such as stevia. This is a great alternative to sugar, if you enjoy a sweet taste. However, some people may find that these chocolates don’t taste as good as the ones with added sugar.
- Always check the nutritional information on the label for the amount of sugar per 100g of chocolate.
- Choose only products with <30% sugar or with stevia sugar as a replacement.
Consider non-alkalized (non-Dutch processed) chocolates
Alkalizing the cocoa is a process used in some chocolate products to reduce their acidity, enhance their color and smooth their bitter flavor.
In this process, sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate or sodium hydroxide is added before or after roasting.
However, alkalizing significantly decreases the procyanidins and antioxidant capacity of cocoa, hence decreasing its health effects in the body. (10)
To determine whether a chocolate has been alkalized/Dutched, look on the packaging for information containing the word “dutch”, “processed with alkali” or treated with alkali products such as phosphoric acid, citric acid, or tartaric acid. (11, 12)
- For the most optimal health benefits, choose chocolate products that have not been alkalized.
- Nevertheless, bear in mind that the flavor and texture may be more appealing in alkalized chocolates.
Avoid chocolates with trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils
These harmful substances are not likely to be used in dark chocolates with high cocoa contents, but instead in other lower end chocolate products such as chocolate spreads, coatings or coated chocolate snacks. (13, 14)
- Avoid chocolates that show “trans fats”, “PHOs” or “partially hydrogenated oils” on their label.
Choose chocolates with the least amount of ingredients
A good quality chocolate doesn’t require many ingredients.
The basic ingredients of dark chocolate are cocoa liquor and butter, which would make it a 100% cocoa chocolate.
However, if you don’t like such an intensity of flavor, you can add some sugar or a natural sweetener, such as stevia, to balance it out.
Additional ingredients, such as almonds, are only a matter of personal taste.
- The best dark chocolate products contain the least amount of ingredients.
Other points to consider while choosing the best dark chocolate
- Milk and milk solids
Dark chocolates may contain up to 12% milk powders that vary in fat, protein contents and particle characteristics.
Non-fat milk solids may alter the hardness of the chocolate, its flavor and, bloom stability. During processing, milk solids can lead to cocoa butter crystallization and flow properties (the flow behavior of molten chocolate important in processing and molding).
Milk fat, on the other hand, can be combined with cocoa butter for various reasons, including a softer, more desirable texture of chocolate.
However, if this pertains to you, some precautions are necessary. Although all major allergens, such as milk, must be displayed by law on the packaging, the absence of milk cannot be guaranteed.
Unfortunately, 51 out of 88 dark chocolates with no milk tested by the FDA displayed the presence of milk in the ingredients list. This may be due to contamination from the equipment during production. (16)
Dark chocolates usually don’t contain milk solids (proteins) at all, but sometimes they may contain pure milk fat for flavor and texture.
For instance, a 78% Cocoa Lindt chocolate contains a small amount of milk fat, while a 90% Cocoa Lindt chocolate doesn’t.
Alternatively, chocolates for lactose intolerant were made available recently. They may still contain milk solids, but with the lactose removed.
- If you are allergic or intolerant to milk, use only milk free products from trusted manufacturers that use milk-free dedicated equipment.
- Otherwise, if this does not affect you, eating chocolate with milk solids is only a matter of personal taste, since it has little to do with health benefits.
- Vegetable fats other than cocoa butter
A maximum of 5% of vegetable fats, called “cocoa butter equivalents (CBEs)”, other than cocoa butter can be used in the chocolate production. They are added to make the chocolate softer, improve its “snap” qualities (when chocolate is broken, a crisp snap indicating a high quality of chocolate) and stability, to reduce the fat bloom (white discoloration) and to help maintain the gloss texture.
The oils used are usually selected for their specific characteristics that match the cocoa butter. They normally have a tropical origin, such as in the cases of shea nuts or palm oils.
However, such a small amount of CBEs doesn’t have a significant impact on the taste or health benefits of the chocolate. (17)
In addition, most of the fine chocolates only use cocoa butter and some use milk fat rather than vegetable oils.
- Some manufacturers may add a small amount of vegetable fats to chocolates. This addition doesn’t make much difference in the taste or health benefits of the chocolate, but improves its texture.
Although the use of emulsifiers in not required in making chocolate, some chocolate producers use them, such as soy lecithin and polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR).
Since emulsifiers are used in negligible amounts, they have no influence on the chocolate’s health benefits or taste.
- Some large chocolate manufacturers use small amounts of emulsifiers, which have an insignificant impact on the taste or health properties of the chocolate.
Except for synthetic vanillin artificial flavors are generally not used in high quality chocolates.
Nevertheless, chocolates are available in various flavors. The most common is vanilla (either artificial or natural) to enhance the perception of sweetness. (20)
Other common flavors include orange zest, lime zest, ginger, cardamom, salt, chili, caramel, raspberry flavor and rum. These flavors, often used in chocolates, alter their taste but not their benefits in health.
Although high cocoa solids flavored chocolates are available, in general, flavors come with more sugar.
TIP: If you like a particular flavor, buy high cocoa dark chocolate (e.g. 90%), melt it and add your favorite flavors.
- Flavored chocolates are usually lower in cocoa solids and higher in sugar.
- Look for flavored chocolate only with high cocoa contents or it make your own.
NUTRITION FACTS VS NUTRITION MYTHS
You will find a summary of the most common nutrition myths and evidence-based nutrition facts here.