Dark chocolate is incredibly healthy and nutritious.
However, there are many brands available and not all of them are created equal. Some are better than others, based on the ingredients and processing methods.
So which one should you choose?
Follow this guide to find out everything you need to know about selecting the best.
What Is Dark Chocolate?
Dark chocolate is produced by adding fat and sugar to cocoa. It differs from milk chocolate in that it contains little to no milk solids.
It also goes by other common names, including bittersweet and semisweet chocolate. These differ slightly in sugar content, but can be used interchangeably in cooking and baking.
Usually the simplest way to know if your chocolate is “dark” or not is to select one with a 70 percent or higher cocoa content.
Dark chocolate is well known for its powerful antioxidant activity. In fact, it has been shown to have a greater antioxidant effect than many high-antioxidant fruits like blueberries and acai berries.
Observational studies have also linked eating dark chocolate with a reduced risk of heart disease and improved brain function.
Ingredients to Look For
It is best to choose dark chocolate made with as few ingredients as possible.
The best dark chocolate always has chocolate liquor or cocoa listed as the first ingredient. There may be several forms of cocoa listed, such as cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, and cocoa butter. All of these are acceptable additions to dark chocolate.
Sometimes other ingredients are added to dark chocolate to improve its appearance, flavor, and shelf life. Some of these ingredients are harmless, while others can have a negative impact on the overall quality of the chocolate.
Sugar. Sugar is often added to dark chocolate to balance its bitter taste.
While sugar is an important component of dark chocolate, some brands go overboard.
It is rare to find dark chocolate that doesn’t have added sugar. A rule of thumb is to choose a brand that does not have sugar listed first on the ingredients list. Better yet, choose one that lists sugar last.
Note that the higher the cocoa percentage, the lower the sugar content will be.
Lecithin. Lecithin is an optional ingredient in dark chocolate. It’s added to many store-bought chocolates as an emulsifier. It keeps the cocoa and cocoa butter from separating and helps blend flavors.
It is commonly derived from soybeans, so you may see it listed as soy lecithin on the label. Soy lecithin is used in such small amounts in chocolate that it shouldn’t pose any concerns about health effects or quality.
Milk. High-quality dark chocolate shouldn’t have any milk added to it.
The only exception would be milk fat. This is essentially butter that has had its moisture and non-fat solids removed.
Chocolate-makers sometimes add milk fat to dark chocolate to soften it and add flavor.
Just like lecithin, milk fat is not required to make dark chocolate.
Flavorings. Dark chocolate is often flavored with spices, extracts, and oils to improve its taste.
The most common flavoring you will see in dark chocolate is vanilla.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to differentiate on a food label which flavors are natural and which are artificial.
If you want flavored dark chocolate, choose one that is organic. That way you can be sure the flavors are not artificial.
Trans fat. If you come across dark chocolate that contains trans fat, avoid it. Trans fat consumption is a significant risk factor for heart disease.
Although it’s becoming less common to add trans fat to chocolate, manufacturers sometimes add it to improve shelf life and consistency.
To make sure your chocolate doesn’t include trans fat, check the ingredients list. If hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil is present, that means the bar contains trans fat.
Bottom line: Avoid brands made with trans fats or large amounts of sugar.
Avoid Alkalized or Dutched Dark Chocolate
Dutch processing is a chocolate processing method that involves treatment with alkali, otherwise known as alkalization.
This method is used to change the color of the chocolate and reduce the bitter flavor.
However, several research studies have demonstrated that Dutch processing significantly reduces the amount of antioxidants in chocolate.
For this reason, chocolate that has been Dutch processed should be avoided.
To check whether chocolate has been Dutch processed, check the ingredients list for something along the lines of “cocoa processed with alkali.”
Bottom line: A process called alkalization, also known as Dutch processing, has negative effects on the antioxidants in dark chocolate.
Choose Fair Trade and Organic Chocolate
Choose chocolate made from fair trade and organic cacao beans whenever possible.
Growing and harvesting cacao beans is a difficult process for the producers. According to Fair Trade USA, you can ensure the cacao bean farmer earns a fair price for the product by buying chocolate that’s been certified as fair trade.
Choosing organic chocolate may also reduce your exposure to any artificial chemicals or pesticides sprayed on the coffee beans.
Bottom line: Buying fair trade chocolate supports cacao farmers and eating organic chocolate reduces your exposure to pesticides and artificial chemicals.
A Few Brands to Try
Here are a few high-quality dark chocolate brands to try.
Alter Eco chocolate is fair trade and organic. They have many types of dark chocolate bars to choose from.
The richest chocolate you can get from them is their Dark Blackout bar, which is 85 percent cocoa. It only contains six grams of sugar and four ingredients: cacao beans, cocoa butter, raw cane sugar, and vanilla beans.
Pascha Chocolate makes chocolate in an allergen-free facility, so their products are safe for consumers with allergies to soy, dairy, and wheat.
They have a variety of dark chocolate bars that contain up to 85 percent cocoa.
Their commitment to making high-quality chocolate is impressive. They take pride in using only essential ingredients to make their products, such as cocoa, sugar, vanilla, and some fruit.
Antidote Chocolate makes potent organic chocolate with ethically sourced cacao beans. Their bars are low in sugar and high in nutrients.
All of their dark chocolate bars have a cocoa content of 70 percent or greater. They even have a bar that contains 100 percent raw cacao.
Equal Exchange chocolate is fair trade and organic, made with high-quality ingredients.
They carry an Extreme Dark chocolate bar that is made from four ingredients, contains only four grams of sugar and has a cocoa percentage of 88 percent.
Keep in mind that these are just a few suggestions. There are many other manufacturers that produce excellent dark chocolate, including Lindt, Green & Black’s, and others.
The best dark chocolate has distinct characteristics, including the following:
- High in cocoa: 70 percent or higher cocoa percentage.
- Cocoa comes first: Cocoa or a form of cocoa is the first ingredient.
- No unnecessary ingredients: Avoid dark chocolate that contains trans fat, milk, artificial flavorings, high amounts of sugar, and other unnecessary ingredients.
- No alkali processing: Alkali processing is also known as Dutch processing. Avoid chocolate processed this way.
- Fair trade and organic: This type of dark chocolate is more likely to be high-quality, ethically sourced, and pesticide-free.
Follow these tips to make sure your dark chocolate is high-quality, rich in antioxidants, and, of course, delicious.
Brianna Elliott is a registered and licensed dietitian. This article was originally published on AuthorithyNutrition.com