“Giving people chocolate or cocoa flavonols is going to have an effect on blood-vessel function and can improve blood flow,” says Diane McKay, an assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston. It seems logical that better blood flow would be good for both your heart and your brain, but “we don’t yet know definitively that eating chocolate is going to help prevent heart disease or improve cognitive function,” she says.
Research indicates that you may need high doses of cocoa flavonols to see an effect, which would probably require taking flavonols in pill or powder form, not as chocolate candy. For example, you’d probably need to eat 600 calories’ worth of dark chocolate to get the 500 mg a day of pure cocoa flavonols that researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston are testing for their effect on heart attack and stroke risk.
“If you want the health benefits of flavonols, there are other ways to get them,” says the study’s lead author, JoAnn Manson, chief of the hospital’s division of preventive medicine. Some of these include green tea, berries, grapes, apples and other antioxidant-rich foods.
If you’re going to eat chocolate, however, a bar with a higher cacao percentage is a better treat than a milk- or white-chocolate one. Milk chocolate not only has less cacao and fewer flavonols but also contains about twice as much sugar as dark chocolate. White chocolate has cocoa butter but no cacao solids, and as a result, it has no flavonols. Its sugar content is comparable to that of milk chocolate.
Dark chocolate also contains a surprising amount of nutrients, making it a healthier dessert option than cookies or cake, which are typically higher in sugar and made with refined flour.
An ounce of dark chocolate can have 3 to 5 grams of fiber, about the same amount as a 6-ounce apple. It also supplies about 65 mg of magnesium (almost as much as a half-cup of cooked spinach) and 203 mg of potassium (the amount in a half-cup of cooked broccoli). Dark chocolate is higher in fat than milk chocolate, but much of it is a combination of the heart-healthy monounsaturated kind and stearic acid, a type of saturated fat that doesn’t raise cholesterol. Still, many people enjoy their chocolate sweet and milky, and dismiss dark chocolate as bitter, grainy, dry and chalky. If that has been your experience, you might want to give it another try.
“There are more high-quality bars available now made in small batches using beans that have been carefully harvested, roasted and processed to enhance flavor,” says Michael Laiskonis, chef and director of the Chocolate Lab at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. The result? Bars that taste smooth, creamy, fruity and even surprisingly sweet.
The healthy way to eat chocolate
If you’re going to work dark chocolate into your diet, the following strategies can help you get the most benefits — and enjoyment — out of it.
Transition to dark. Milk chocolate can have as little as 10 percent cacao, and a high-quality bar has only about 27 percent. So milk-chocolate lovers may need to ease into the dark side. Start with a bar that has about 60 percent cacao. It can also help to look for cocoa butter in the ingredients list. Cocoa beans are 50 percent fat, and many chocolate producers use extra cocoa butter to create a smoother, creamier texture, Laiskonis says.
Another tip: Try a “single origin” bar, which is made with cocoa beans from one country or region. Beans grown in Madagascar, Belize and the Dominican Republic are most likely to have berry and dried-fruit notes, which can make the chocolate taste sweeter, says Megan Giller, author of “Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution” and founder of Chocolate Noise, a tasting company.
Buy better bars. Buying high-quality chocolate is similar to buying fine wine or good coffee. The ingredients, where and how they’re grown and harvested, and how they’re processed and turned into a chocolate bar all play a huge role in the taste of the final product. “The skill and mastery of the chocolate maker can help transform even a 100 percent cacao bar into something rich and creamy that doesn’t taste like baker’s chocolate,” Giller says.
Eat it mindfully. Tasting the subtlety of the flavors will allow you to get the most satisfaction out of even a small portion. “Put a small piece in your mouth, chew a couple of times, but mostly let it melt over your tongue,” Laiskonis says.
Pair it. A dark bar that contains bits of dried fruit, nuts or sea salt can taste sweeter than a plain dark bar, even if both contain the same cacao percentage. But beware of other sweet add-ins — such as caramel and marshmallow — that significantly increase the sugar content. You can also eat dark chocolate with some fresh berries or dried apricots (both of which pack additional flavonols), blending the bitter and sweet tastes in your mouth. Tea, even unsweetened, is another great dark-chocolate companion. Combining the two balances out the slight bitterness of the chocolate.
Chocolate with a conscience
Cocoa beans can be grown in ways that harm the environment, exploit workers or are otherwise unethical. Many terms on labels are used to indicate that a company doesn’t engage in those practices, but some labels carry more weight than others. Here’s what these terms promise — and what they don’t.
Fair Trade: There are three main certified fair-trade seals on chocolate: Fair for Life, Fairtrade and Fair Trade Certified. These ensure that farmers are paid more than market price for cocoa and that no serious labor violations occur on the farms, such as child labor or substandard wages.
Rainforest Alliance: This seal indicates that some or all of the chocolate is sourced from farms that have met Rainforest Alliance standards for protecting farmers, forests, wildlife and local communities.
Sustainable: This is a broad term intended to convey that the chocolate was produced using environmentally responsible practices. Because the term is vague and unregulated, it’s difficult to know for certain whether it’s meaningful.
Direct trade: This indicates that the cocoa farmer and the cocoa buyer work with each other directly (rather than through a third party) to set terms and conditions. While this in theory reduces the chances of exploitation, what those terms and conditions are can vary.
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