You hear all the time that dark chocolate is good for your health. But “dark chocolate” encompasses everything from Milky Way Midnights to Mast Brothers artisanal, small-batch candy bars. It’s certainly not all good for you. So how can you tell dark chocolate duds from Dark Chocolate, Superfood?
It’s all about cacao, baby. Chocolate and cocoa power are made from the seeds or beans of the cacao tree (also called the cocoa tree). Cacao beans are high in theobromine, a compound also found in tea, yerba mate and kola plants that dilates blood vessels and works as a diuretic. They’re also high in flavonoids, a type of plant-derived antioxidant compound beneficial to heart and brain health.
To make chocolate, manufacturers start with these cacao beans and vary the amount based on the type of chocolate they want. Beans are roasted, cracked and de-shelled, and the end pieces are called “cacao nibs.” To these cacao nibs, chocolatiers add cocoa butter (a fat) and sugar, and this is how we get what we know as chocolate.
The cacao nibs are the healthy part, obviously; the sugar and fat is what manufacturers add to make chocolate sweeter, less bitter and more palatable. The higher the cacao content in chocolate, the better for you it is.
The healthiest type of chocolate, then, is the kind that’s 1) least processed and 2) highest in cacao. Raw cacao nibs and raw cacao powder are both super healthy for you (and great for baking or making smoothies). The raw part matters because flavonoids are degraded during the cooking process.
While specialty candy makers may sell raw cacao candy bars, most of the dark chocolate you see in stores and candy shops has been cooked. It can still be nutritious, but be sure to look into the other ingredients: Too much sugar, high fructose corn syrup or saturated fat can outweigh any good from the cacao.
Lastly, look for the cacao content. The percentage of cacao in common dark chocolate candy bars can be as low as 30% and as high as 90%. Most dark chocolate candy bars with any cacao content to boast of will say so prominently—look for 70% cacao or higher. Alternately, look for chocolate labeled “bittersweet.”
Photo: Santa Barbara Chocolate