Healthy eating is often unfairly represented as food that we eat because it is good for us rather than because we enjoy it.
One exception is dark chocolate, which is often touted as a healthier option for snacking – but is this true?
What is dark chocolate?
Dark chocolate is chocolate made with anything from 50% to 90% cocoa solids.
Cocoa solids are produced from the beans from the cacao plant. These are fermented, dried and roasted, then the shells are removed leaving the cocoa nibs, which are ground, separated from the cocoa butter and refined to produce cocoa powder.
Why is dark chocolate considered good for you?
Dark chocolate is a good source of antioxidants, including catechins and epicatechins, which are a sub-group of flavonoids, which in turn come under the banner of polyphenols.
These help to regulate the activity of cells in the body, repelling damaging free radicals, protecting us from toxins and decreasing the formation of blood clots.
Various studies have shown a range of potential benefits from consuming dark chocolate, including:
- Increasing insulin sensitivity and reducing blood pressure, lowering the risk of diabetes and heart disease
- Lowering levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol and increasing levels of HDL “good” cholesterol
- Mood enhancing properties, improved cognition, reduced memory loss
Because the flavanols in cocoa make it bitter, chocolate bars and other chocolate confectionery is often processed to have a high sugar content and added flavourings that can reduce the health benefits.
It’s also worth noting that just because a dark chocolate bar has a high cocoa content listed on its packaging, it does not automatically mean it has a high flavanol content – in fact some have argued that it should be flavanol levels listed on the packaging.
What else is found in dark chocolate?
Dark chocolate is also packed with minerals, such as iron, magnesium and zinc, as well as manganese, potassium, phosphorus and selenium.
How does dark chocolate differ from milk and white chocolate?
Dark chocolate has a higher cocoa content than milk chocolate, which has around 10-50% cocoa solids, mixed with cocoa butter, milk and sugar.
White chocolate does not contain cocoa solids at all, which means that strictly speaking it’s not actually chocolate. Instead, it’s made from cocoa butter, milk, vanilla and lecithin.
Dark chocolate has a slightly higher protein content than milk or white chocolate.
What about calories?
A 100g bar of dark chocolate usually has around 580-600 calories, which is actually slightly more than a milk or white chocolate bar with around 520-530 calories per 100g.
However, as dark chocolate can induce satiety – the feeling of being full, which stops us eating – it’s possible that this could balance out.
Any other downsides?
Dark chocolate is also usually higher in fat than milk or white chocolate. It also doesn’t have the benefit of calcium found in milk and white chocolate or the lecithin in white chocolate, which has benefits such as lowering cholesterol.
Scientific studies have shown a positive benefit from eating dark chocolate in moderation. Choosing a natural, organic dark chocolate with a high cocoa content is preferable to gorging on highly processed sugar-laden confectionery snacks.