The cocoa content is what differentiates dark chocolate from milk and white chocolates. Dark chocolate has a lot more cocoa solids than milk chocolate. And there are no cocoa solids in white chocolate.
Milk chocolate and white chocolate have more milk and sugar. Dark chocolate is not as sweet and can be bitter. Chocolate experts tend to favor dark chocolate for its overall quality and taste.
This article explores the health benefits of dark chocolate and how to incorporate it into your diet.
Why Does Cocoa Content in Dark Chocolate Matter?
Cocoa is rich in healthy flavanols. Some dark chocolate products have two to three times more cocoa solids than milk chocolate. And some lower-quality chocolates may have more added fats, sugar, and artificial flavors.
Standards differ by country, but dark chocolate generally has 50–90% cocoa solids and no milk. Milk chocolate usually has 10–50% cocoa solids. White chocolate has at least 20% cocoa butter but no cocoa solids.
Chocolate lovers, experts, and crafters prefer dark chocolate with 75% cocoa or higher, which many consider a higher-quality product.
This larger concentration of cocoa gives dark chocolate a richer chocolate taste. But it’s not as sweet as milk chocolate. Some people might find higher concentrations of cocoa too bitter.
One bar of dark chocolate (70–85% cocoa) contains the following nutrients:
Compounds in Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is made with various amounts of cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder. Cocoa beans have over 300 chemical plant compounds, which benefit overall health.
Polyphenols (plant compounds that act as antioxidants) include phenolic acids, stilbenes, flavonol and flavan-3-ols, anthocyanins, and procyanidins. Methylxanthines (non-polyphenols) include theobromine, caffeine, and theophylline.
Cocoa vs. Cacao
Cocoa and cacao are both made from the seeds (beans) of the Theobroma cacao tree. The difference has to do with processing. Cacao products are made from raw beans, while cocoa is made from roasted beans.
Dark Chocolate Benefits
The bioactive compounds in dark chocolate are associated with many health benefits.
May Protect Heart Health
Cocoa is rich in naturally occurring chemicals called flavanols, which are good for your heart. Flavanols help relax blood vessels, improving blood flow, lowering blood pressure, and reducing inflammation.
One review found that eating higher levels of chocolate was linked to a 37% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduced risk of stroke.
May Improve Lipid Profile
Research suggests eating 2 grams of dark chocolate (70% cocoa) daily for six months may improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
May Lower Diabetes Risk
Eating dark chocolate daily may improve fasting blood glucose levels and insulin resistance. Research suggests that a small amount of dark chocolate daily may help manage diabetes or lower the risk of developing it.
Good for the Gut Microbiome
Research suggests that dark chocolate has a prebiotic effect and restructures the diversity and composition of the gut microbiome. The gut microbiome plays a vital role in disease and overall health.
Dark chocolate may help improve mood, possibly due to a better gut microbiome. Gut microbial diversity is associated with higher positive emotions and reduced feelings of loneliness. One study found people who ate 85% cocoa chocolate saw improvements in their mood but not for those who ate 75% cocoa.
Polyphenols in cocoa may help lower cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) stress hormones. This appears to be true whether you’re healthy or highly stressed.
Improved Brain Function
Flavonoids in cocoa help protect neurons and enhance cognitive function. Cocoa can also improve blood flow to the brain. Dark chocolate may offer some protection against degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Stronger Immune System
The antioxidant properties in dark chocolate may help reduce cell damage from free radicals, which can help protect against cell death and many diseases, including cancer and the effects of aging.
Enhanced Athletic Performance
Compounds in dark chocolate raise nitric oxide in the blood. This may improve circulation and lower the oxygen you need when exercising. That can help you keep moving longer.
Dark Chocolate Bar Checklist: Things to Keep in Mind
Chocolate is best when stored in a cool, dry place but not in the refrigerator. Stored the right way, it can keep up to two years. Here are some other essential things to keep in mind:
- You’ll get the most flavanols out of 70% or higher dark chocolate.
- Some dark chocolate products are Dutch-processed or treated with alkali to improve flavor and appearance. This can reduce flavanols. As you might find with baking products, natural cocoa keeps the most flavanols.
- Farming, harvesting, and transporting chocolate may involve child labor or other unfair labor practices. Products labeled Fair Trade are produced without child labor and at a fair wage for workers.
For all of dark chocolate’s healthy qualities, it’s pretty high in calories, and a significant amount of these calories come from fat. Some dark chocolate products may also have added sugars. Overeating can lead to weight gain and impaired glucose homeostasis, especially if you have type 2 diabetes.
With all that in mind, most people can integrate dark chocolate into a well-balanced, healthy dietary pattern.
Who Shouldn’t Eat Dark Chocolate
It’s safe for most people to have a small amount of dark chocolate daily, but it’s not a good choice for everyone. Here are some things to consider:
- You should not eat chocolate if you’re allergic to cocoa or other ingredients.
- If you’re prone to them, chocolate can trigger acid reflux or migraines.
- The more cocoa solids in your chocolate, the more caffeine. Keep this in mind if you are trying to limit caffeine. One bar of dark chocolate has about 80.8 milligrams (mg) of caffeine.
- Some dark chocolate may contain high heavy metals, particularly lead and cadmium. Heavy metal exposure is linked to a variety of health problems, including respiratory, neurological, digestive, cardiovascular, urinary, and immune system disorders. These metals are also found in other common foods, so moderation is key.
Dark chocolate has many potential health benefits due to its high cocoa solid content. Consuming dark chocolate may benefit your heart, immune system, mood, and overall health. But it’s also high in fat and calories, so eating it in moderation is best. Consult with a dietitian or other healthcare professional if you have any concerns.