We know you love a rich, decadent piece of chocolate, but is there really one type that’s better for you than another? The answer is yes: The dark variety is not only a sweet treat but good for you, too, packing in more health benefits than its milk or white cousins.

What Makes This Sweet Treat Healthy?

Compared to other types of chocolate, the dark variety gets its health benefits from the percentage of cocoa found in it. Because the cocoa bean is a plant, it contains compounds called “flavanols,” which are antioxidants proven to have beneficial health effects upon the body. In particular, cocoa has high levels of a particular flavanol called “epicatechin,” which affects the body by:

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Improving blood flow and keeping cholesterol in check
  • Boosting cognitive functioning
  • Providing UV protection for your skin

While these beneficial effects have been known for some time, another benefit has recently come to light. Researchers from the American Chemical Society found that good microbes in the stomach, like Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, actually ferment and turn cocoa compounds into anti-inflammatory agents that reduce inflammation in the heart. This aids in stroke prevention. Added to all its other healthy qualities, having some form of dark cocoa in your diet seems to be a sound nutritional decision.

How Processing Affects the Flavanoids in Cocoa

To make cocoa more delicious, chocolatiers long ago found ways to process cocoa beans using alkali to remove their bitterness. In doing so, many of the beneficial flavanoid compounds are removed, and the resulting product loses much of its healthy effects. Therefore, in choosing the best dark chocolates to consume, we recommend you watch for the following on the label:

  • “Dutch” or “Dutching,” which refers to a method that uses alkali to process the cocoa bean
  • “Processed with alkali,” which is sometimes directly stated
  • The percentage of dark cocoa, or “cacao,” in the product; the higher the percentage, the higher the amount of healthy flavanols. All cocoa products considered to be “dark” should state their percentage on the package.

Which Dark Chocolates are the Best?

Just like tea or coffee, dark cocoa products whether in candy or powder form will vary in taste. The higher the percentage of unprocessed cocoa, the more bitterness comes through. It’s a good idea to test different brands to know what suits your palate. In dark chocolates, cocoa percentages will typically range anywhere between 50 and 95 percent, depending on the chocolatier. Also, for true varieties of dark chocolate, the cocoa will always be listed in the ingredients above the sugar. Keep that in mind when making your choice.

As with any treat, moderation is the key. Bars will usually be scored into individual pieces, which is good for breaking off the right amount. For optimal health benefits, the recommended “dose” of this dark delight is no more than 1.6 ounces per day. But go on, indulge yourself, because the nutritional benefits were never sweeter.

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Amy Heydt
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