What is dark chocolate?
Made from the seeds of the cacao tree, dark chocolate is a rich, bitter-tasting chocolate made from processed cocoa solids, sugar and cocoa butter. The percentage of cocoa affects the flavour and bitterness, with the most popular products containing between 70-85% cocoa solids.
Nutritional benefits of dark chocolate
The exact nutritional values will vary depending on the brand you choose – this is because of the variation in the levels of cocoa butter, as well as other ingredients used in the product.
A 20g serving of 70-85% dark chocolate typically provides:
• 120 kcal / 501 kj • 1.6g protein • 8.5g fat • 4.9g saturated fat • 7.3g carbs • 5.0g sugar • 2.2g fibre
Generally speaking, the higher the cocoa percentage, the better the health benefits. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that not all dark chocolate retains its beneficial properties. This is because the manufacturing process – which involves cleaning, fermenting, roasting and alkalising – as well as the addition of ingredients like sugar and emulsifiers may strip the chocolate of its beneficial plant compounds.
Enjoyed as an occasional treat, 20g of high-cocoa, minimally processed dark chocolate (about six small pieces or two large squares) may be incorporated in a varied, balanced diet. However, as dark chocolate is high in calories, saturated fat and potentially sugar, your intake should be moderated.
Top 5 health benefits of dark chocolate
1. A useful source of trace minerals
Dark chocolate, with its high cocoa content, has some impressive health benefits, including its dense nutrient content. This includes minerals like magnesium, iron and zinc.
2. Rich in protective plant compounds
One of the benefits of dark chocolate is that it is rich in plant compounds that have protective antioxidant properties. These include polyphenols, flavanols and catechins. A study in 2011 compared dark chocolate and cocoa powder to 'super fruits' – the chocolate was found to be richer in protective antioxidants than both blueberries and pomegranates.
3. May reduce the risk of heart disease
Studies suggest that diets rich in protective flavanols may improve vascular health, helping blood vessels function better, helping lower blood pressure and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. With dark chocolate being one of the most valuable contributors of flavonols, it may well make a heart-friendly inclusion in a varied, balanced diet. However, the British Heart Foundation recommends caution in interpreting some of these findings, because there are many additional factors to consider, such as an individual’s risk factors for heart disease and their diet as a whole.
4. May improve brain function
Because of the beneficial effects on the vascular system, enjoying moderate amounts of high-cocoa dark chocolate regularly may improve blood flow, including that to the brain. Studies also demonstrate that flavanols offer some neuro-protective benefits, suggesting it may be beneficial for helping maintain cognitive function in the elderly.
5. May modulate the gut microbiota
Consuming high-cocoa chocolate, rich in these polyphenols, appears to modulate the community of microbes that lives in our gut, also known as our gut microbiota. Such a diet promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria that triggers anti-inflammatory pathways, and as such may reduce the implications of inflammatory conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
Is dark chocolate safe for everyone?
Moderate consumption of high-cocoa, minimally processed dark chocolate, at least for the majority of us, is generally recognised as safe and may form part of a varied, balanced diet. Being plant-based, cacao and most dark chocolate products (that are free of dairy) are suitable for those following a vegan diet.
Dark chocolate contains stimulants such as caffeine and theobromine, so if you are sensitive to these compounds, you may wish to minimise your intake.
Although a true allergy to cacao or cocoa is rare, some people may experience allergy to chocolate or one of its other ingredients. For example, soy lecithin is a common stabiliser used in confectionery and one of the 14 common allergens required by UK law to be displayed on food labels.
Read more about food allergies at NHS allergy and speak to your GP if you suspect you may have an allergy.
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This article was reviewed on 25 February 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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