There is no debating that dark chocolate is delicious, but is it a healthy food choice?
The answer to that question usually differs depending on the source.
We can hear dark chocolate referred to as either a “superfood” or something we should be cutting down on.
Is either of these claims true? Or does the answer lay somewhere in between?
This article takes an in-depth look at dark chocolate, its nutritional value, and its potential benefits.
What is Dark Chocolate?
People have cultivated the cacao bean (Theobroma cacao seeds) for millennia, and even ancient tribes like the Mayans and Aztecs valued it.
While ancient peoples used cacao for making bitter chocolate drinks, chocolate bars are the favored option in modern times.
Like all types of chocolate, dark chocolate production involves roasting and grinding the whole beans into a thick paste. This paste, known as cocoa liquor, may then be mixed with cocoa butter, sugar, and any other ingredients to form a chocolate bar (1).
Dark chocolate contains higher amounts of cocoa than regular milk chocolate. The taste can range from sweet to bitter and everything in between.
According to the FDA, any product claiming to be dark chocolate must have a cocoa content of more than 35% (2).
However, bitter chocolate with minimal sugar content has a much higher cocoa content of around 70-100% cocoa.
A good dark chocolate bar is usually a combination of three simple ingredients; cocoa butter, cocoa powder/mass, and some sugar. Flavoring ingredients, such as vanilla bean, are also relatively common.
Some bars of chocolate contain additional ingredients such as the emulsifier soy lecithin.
Cheaper bars of chocolate may also contain vegetable oils rather than genuine cocoa butter.
Potential Benefits of Dark Chocolate
Here is a look at some of the proven (and potential) benefits of dark chocolate, according to its nutritional values and scientific research.
1. Dark Chocolate is Relatively Nutrient-Dense
According to the USDA’s FoodData Central database, the data below shows the full nutritional values for a typical bar of dark chocolate containing 70-85% cocoa (3).
|Calories/Nutrient||Amount Per Oz (28g)||Per 100g|
|Calories||170 kcal||598 kcal|
|Carbohydrate||13 g||45.9 g|
|Fiber||3.1 g||10.9 g|
|Sugars||6.8 g||24.0 g|
|Fat||12.1 g||42.6 g|
|Saturated||6.9 g||24.5 g|
|Monounsaturated||3.6 g||12.8 g|
|Polyunsaturated||0.4 g||1.3 g|
|Omega-3||<0.01 g||0.03 g|
|Omega-6||0.4 g||1.2 g|
|Protein||2.2 g||7.8 g|
It is worth noting that the sugar content here will really depend on the exact percentage of cocoa.
For example, a 70% bar of dark chocolate would still contain a moderate amount of sugar, but this would fall as the cocoa percentage rises.
Vitamins and Minerals
|Per Ounce (28g)||Per 100g|
|Copper: 56% DV||Copper: 197% DV|
|Manganese: 24% DV||Manganese: 85% DV|
|Iron: 19% DV||Iron: 66% DV|
|Magnesium: 15% DV||Magnesium: 54% DV|
|Zinc: 9% DV||Zinc: 30% DV|
|Phosphorus: 7% DV||Phosphorus: 25% DV|
|Potassium: 4% DV||Potassium: 15% DV|
|Selenium: 3% DV||Selenium: 12% DV|
|Vitamin B12: 3% DV||Vitamin B12: 12% DV|
|Vitamin B5: 2% DV||Vitamin B5: 8% DV|
|Vitamin B3: 2% DV||Vitamin B3: 7% DV|
|Vitamin K: 2% DV||Vitamin K: 6% DV|
|Calcium: 2% DV||Calcium: 6% DV|
|Vitamin B2: 2% DV||Vitamin B2: 6% DV|
|Folate: 1% DV||Folate: 4% DV|
|Vitamin B1: 1% DV||Vitamin B1: 3% DV|
|Choline: 1% DV||Choline: 2% DV|
|Vitamin B6: 1% DV||Vitamin B6: 2% DV|
|Sodium: Trace||Sodium: 1% DV|
As shown above, dark chocolate is packed with beneficial vitamins and minerals, and it is particularly high in manganese, copper and magnesium.
2. Dark Chocolate Lowers Oxidized LDL Levels
One of the most positive aspects of dark chocolate appears to be the impact it has on oxidized LDL cholesterol (OxLDL).
Oxidized LDL is highly reactive and damages surrounding tissues, such as the lining of our veins and arteries. As a result, it is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Interestingly, various studies demonstrate that dark chocolate flavonoids—a type of polyphenol—help prevent LDL particles from oxidizing.
This effect appears to be through the flavonoids exerting a protective effect and increasing the LDL particle’s resistance to oxidation (7).
3. Dark Chocolate May Lower Blood Pressure
Staying with the cardiac theme, another benefit of dark chocolate is that it appears to impact blood pressure levels beneficially.
One recent study from Harvard University determined that dark chocolate helps to control blood pressure, especially in hypertensive individuals.
The study was a review of 24 prior research studies, and it analyzed dark chocolate consumption and blood pressure in over 1,106 subjects.
Notably, the results found a clear trend; when the dark chocolate contained at least 50-70% cacao, blood pressure dropped – in all participants consuming it (8).
Further, various other studies show similar findings;
- In a randomized clinical trial, 30g dark chocolate per day over 15 days led to decreased systolic blood pressure (9).
- A further randomized and controlled double-blind study of sixty individuals had participants consume 25g dark chocolate per day for eight weeks. Results showed a significant decrease in blood pressure without any confounding factors such as changes in weight, insulin resistance or blood glucose levels (10).
On the other hand, one study—in 194 school children aged between 10 and 12—found no benefit.
That said, this particular study only provided a daily amount of 7g dark chocolate for seven weeks, and the authors admitted that a higher “dose” should be considered (11).
4. May Help To Protect Skin Against UV Damage
Sunlight is vital for our health and offers a beneficial boost to vitamin D and nitric oxide levels. However, too much UV exposure is potentially damaging to our skin in terms of aging and—potentially—skin cancer risk.
Interestingly, the flavonoids in dark chocolate appear to improve our skin’s natural resistance to UV from the sun. To measure UV damage, researchers typically use a measurement known as minimal erythema dose (MED) (12).
For example, a controlled double-blind study fed high flavanol (HF_ chocolate to one group and low flavanol (LF) chocolate to another for 30 days. Surprisingly, the UV resistance of the HF group more than doubled while the LF group remained unchanged (13).
A further study shows that long-term ingestion of high flavanol dark cacao leads to higher skin density, better skin hydration, and increased UV resistance (14).
Although this is a nice benefit of dark chocolate, it’s important to stay safe in the sun.
Eating a little chocolate isn’t powerful protection against sunburn, so this doesn’t mean you can bask in the sunshine all day. It is better to seek shade (or cover up) once you have been out for a while.
5. Mood-Boosting Properties
Almost everyone loves chocolate, and one of the reasons why could be because it makes us feel happy.
Dark chocolate contains a compound called theobromine and this—alongside similar compounds such as caffeine—is a class of methylxanthine.
Theobromine affects our central nervous system in a similar way to caffeine and can help us relax and feel content. Additionally, it has beneficial impacts on levels of alertness, focus, and energy (15).
However, this isn’t the only reason why dark chocolate boosts mood.
There is evidence that chocolate interacts with neurotransmitters, increases serotonin levels, and releases “feel-good” endorphins. This effect is because chocolate naturally contains serotonin and the dopamine pre-cursor tyrosine (16).
Research also suggests that dark chocolate (or cacao) might be a useful aid for patients suffering from depression or mental health issues.
On this note, researchers are investigating possible benefits for a wide range of conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (17).
6. Dark Chocolate Raises HDL (the “Good Cholesterol”)
There are many arguments and disagreements regarding cholesterol and how it affects our health.
However, almost everyone agrees that high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is beneficial and that a higher number is positive.
While LDL transports cholesterol around the body, HDL has the job of removing it.
As we discussed earlier, LDL can become problematic if it remains in circulation long enough to oxidize and this makes a higher amount of HDL ideal.
High levels of HDL are believed to be one of the most significant protective factors against cardiovascular disease, so this is a nice health benefit of dark chocolate (21).
Furthermore, dark chocolate typically improves other cardiac health markers such as insulin sensitivity, inflammation, and blood pressure (22).
7. Dark Chocolate Contains Large Amounts of Polyphenols
Polyphenols are a type of phytonutrient that we can find in plant foods.
They have antioxidant properties, although the pathway through which they exert benefits in the body is not fully understood (23).
We can find polyphenols in all types of food, but significant sources include coffee, chocolate, extra virgin olive oil, herbs and spices, red wine, and tea (24).
For instance, their mechanisms potentially play a role in fighting inflammation and possibly reducing the early development of cancer and various neurological diseases.
Drinking tea/coffee, using herbs and spices, and having an occasional wine with chocolate are all enjoyable things to do.
On the positive side, they appear to have some decent health benefits too.
8. Contains Phenylethylamine: The Brain’s “Love Chemical”
Otherwise known as PEA, Phenylethylamine is another compound found in chocolate that acts as a mild central nervous system (CNS) stimulant.
People popularly refer to it as “the love drug” owing to its (apparent) beneficial effect on mood.
Upon consumption, phenylethylamine causes the body to release endorphins in the brain—known as ‘feel good chemicals.’
However, human studies in this area are lacking.
9. Lastly: Dark Chocolate Tastes Great!
If this was an article about the health benefits of some insect food or organ meat, then it might be a hard sell.
But this is chocolate, and chocolate tastes delicious.
While it’s not a miraculous superfood (no food is), it does have various health benefits, and it’s a joy to eat.
In other words, providing you’re eating the right sort of chocolate bar, it’s not something to feel guilty about.
The bonus is that eating chocolate is always something to look forward to!
Are There Any Concerns About Dark Chocolate?
As with most things in the nutrition world, almost all foods have some negative points. Dark chocolate is no exception.
Specifically, some common concerns include;
- Sugar content
But is it worth worrying about these risks? Let’s take a look.
Unfortunately, these claims appear to have some relatively strong foundations.
First of all, chocolate has a history of being contaminated with lead. One study in this area found that dark chocolate contained roughly 30 to 70 nanograms of lead per gram (30).
However, the researcher behind this study, Charley W. Rankin, noted that he didn’t recommend anyone quit their chocolate habit.
On this topic, he stated; “I’m not going to suggest that you curb your chocolate consumption, and chocolate may actually be pretty good for you”.
Additionally, in 2015 a consumer group took leading chocolate manufacturers to court.
In short, this was because some manufacturers (Mars and Hershey) were selling chocolate deemed as “unsafe” by California law (31).
That said, it is worth noting that Californian food safety laws are notoriously strict. As an example, against mainstream scientific consensus, California recently considered classing coffee as a carcinogen and putting warnings on all coffee labels (32).
For further analysis of lead in chocolate, you can read more in this news article.
While some people are aware of the perils of excess sugar, they see nothing wrong with a little dark chocolate.
However, others try to avoid every source of sugar—even the small amounts contained in extra dark chocolate.
It is generally a good idea to limit sugar, but the small amounts in dark chocolate are not worth worrying about.
Overall, it’s not worth restricting something that is enjoyable (and has health benefits) for such a minimal amount of sugar.
This is especially the case when we consider how little sugar something like 85% + dark chocolate bars have.
What is the Difference Between Dark and Milk Chocolate?
First of all, the clue is in the name; milk chocolate rather surprisingly contains…. milk.
Another clear difference is that milk chocolate has a much milder flavor due to the reduced cocoa content.
Of course, the substitute for this missing cocoa is sugar, which is not so good for health.
Generally speaking, the nutrients in milk chocolate are the same as dark chocolate.
However, due to the reduced cocoa content and increased sugar, the nutrients occur in much smaller quantities.
For example, per 100g of typical milk chocolate, you can find the following nutrients (33):
- 24% of the RDA for Manganese (DC = 98%)
- 25% of the RDA for Copper (DC = 89%)
- 13% of the RDA for Iron (DC = 67%)
- 16% of the RDA for Magnesium (DC = 58%)
- 15% of the RDA for Zinc (DC = 22%)
- 11% of the RDA for Potassium (DC = 21%)
Additionally, milk chocolate also contains 3.4g of fiber and 51g of sugar.
Milk Chocolate Benefits
Milk chocolate has similar but reduced benefits—lesser owing to the lower cocoa content.
Another ‘benefit’ is that milk chocolate also contains less lead contamination.
This reduced lead contamination is a result of the smaller cocoa content in milk chocolate.
While dark chocolate contains 30-70 nanograms, milk chocolate only contains 11-35 nanograms of lead per gram (30).
Drawbacks of Milk Chocolate
Although the cocoa in milk chocolate is beneficial, there is just too much negative effect from the sugar.
In essence, the majority of commercial milk chocolate is over 50% sugar by weight.
In other words; milk chocolate contains far too much sugar to recommend it as a healthy choice.
Another negative of milk chocolate is that these bars are more of a ‘product’ than dark chocolate.
For instance, milk chocolate often contains numerous additives. It’s also possible to find milk chocolate bars that include corn syrup and vegetable oil.
What is the Best Dark Chocolate Bar?
Dark chocolate comes in all shapes and sizes.
There are three distinct categories of bars known as semisweet, bittersweet, and unsweetened.
Semisweet dark chocolate contains approximately 40-65% cacao and provides a relatively large amount of sugar.
Bittersweet dark chocolate tends to be over 70% cacao solids and can be anything up to 99%.
It is also sometimes referred to as “extra dark” and due to the higher cacao solids, it contains a lot less sugar.
Unsweetened dark chocolate is self-explanatory and contains no sugar. This type of chocolate is extremely bitter and people usually mix it with other ingredients for baking purposes.
Note: There is very little regulation over these terms, so make sure to check labels to see the precise nutritional breakdown.
The Best Option
To get the full benefits of dark chocolate without the negatives (excessive sugar) then going for an 85% or higher bar is the best option.
If that seems too bitter, then you can start off around the 70% mark and then try to work your way up.
Or…. Make Homemade Dark Chocolate!
If you are feeling adventurous, then it’s possible to make your own chocolate at home and skip the sugar altogether.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t take much time, and it’s straightforward too.
First, you need the following ingredients;
- 200g (7oz) 100% unsweetened chocolate
- 50g (1.75oz) pure cocoa butter
- 2 tbsp erythritol
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Optional: 1 shot of espresso
- Optional: 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- First, melt down the chocolate and fat in a bowl over boiling water. Don’t allow any water to come in the bowl!
- Next, blend the erythritol to make it into powdered form rather than granules and add it to the bowl.
- Mix everything, add the salt and optional espresso or vanilla extract.
- Make sure the mixture has a smooth consistency and then pour into a chocolate bar mold.
- Put the mold into the refrigerator, and it will harden as it cools.
A few hours later, it will be firm, and you’ll have your own homemade dark chocolate bar.
For any coffee lovers out there, I recommend using the shot of espresso… it’s delicious.
How Much Dark Chocolate Should You Eat Per Day?
As mentioned earlier, dark chocolate has some excellent health benefits but it’s not a “superfood” and moderation is important.
Additionally, you don’t need to eat it every day (or even at all).
Personally, I think a one-ounce (28g) serving is about right if it’s going to be a regular thing.
In summary, it’s important to make sure we choose chocolate high in cocoa solids.
For genuine dark chocolate, we can also enjoy it without guilt because it offers various health benefits.