You’ve probably read that dark chocolate is good for you. You may even have heard it called a superfood. Over the last few decades, research has linked the bittersweet treat to a broad spectrum of health benefits: better blood flow, enhanced cognition, improved mood, lower heart disease risk, just to name a few.
Chocolate lovers nationwide have gobbled up the good news, spending $18.9 billion on the stuff in 2017, according to Euromonitor. That’s a whopping 25 percent more than Americans doled out for chocolate in 2007. Yet during the same time period, overall candy sales shrunk.
So can dark chocolate—which is technically candy, after all—really, truly be healthy? It’s complicated. While delicious dark chocolate certainly has its merits, it’s a far cry from avocadoes, blueberries, sweet potatoes and other staples often dubbed superfoods.
What the science shows
Most of the hype around dark chocolate’s purported health benefits centers on the naturally occurring flavanols found in raw cacao, the plant used to make dark chocolate. Also abundant in fruits and veggies, these phytonutrients are potent antioxidants, which can help tame inflammation, protect cells from damage and help our bodies and brains stay healthy overall. Almost all of the studies cited to pump up dark chocolate’s health cred have been conducted on either raw cacao or cocoa powder.
The problem is that dark chocolate is neither cacao nor cocoa powder. It contains them, yes, but the indulgence you buy at the store has undergone heavy processing, which strips out many of the flavanols. Some brands even use an alkalizing process called dutching to make dark chocolate taste less bitter, and that destroys nearly all of the flavanols. What’s more, chocolatiers usually add sugar, cocoa butter and fat to sweeten the chocolate, further diluting the natural plant compounds in the finished product. And while it is true that dark chocolate contains more real cocoa than milk chocolate and certainly white chocolate do, it still falls short in flavanols.
When ConsumerLab tested the flavanol content in more than a dozen dark chocolate bars recently, it found a vast range. But on average, you’d have to consume 200 to 500 calories’ worth of dark chocolate to get 400 milligrams of flavanols. And for one popular brand’s bar, it would take roughly 1,500 calories to net you 400 milligrams of flavanols. To put that flavanol count in perspective, 400 milligrams still doesn’t touch the amount found in the cocoa or cacao used in most studies that have shown a potential health benefit. In other words, you’d have to down so much dark chocolate to get a suitable amount of flavanols that all the sugar and fat would most likely override any their health benefits.
How the message got twisted
Wondering how all this information become so misconstrued? Well, when you take a hard look at the science, you’ll see that almost all chocolate research has been funded by a few names you’ll recognize: Mars, Hershey, Nestlé. As America has grown increasingly concerned about added sugar in recent years, the chocolate industry has worked hard to paint dark chocolate as a health food. They’ve set up their own research institutes and gotten high-caliber universities like Harvard and the University of California, Davis to study cacao and cocoa.
The data from these studies have been overwhelmingly positive. Vox conducted an investigation last year and found that out of 100 Mars-sponsored studies, 98 yielded favorable results for cocoa. This certainly suggests some degree of research bias.
For the most part, these scientists don’t claim to be studying dark chocolate when they’re really studying cacao or cocoa. That erroneous leap typically happens when media outlets report on their studies and bloggers and social media influencers post about them. After all, the headline “Dark chocolate may prevent Alzheimer’s” makes for much better clickbait than “Flavanols in cacao may have positive effect on part of brain that controls memory.”
Because dark chocolate contains some health-supporting flavanols—along with fat, which makes it satiating—it’s a smarter pick for the occasional indulgence than Skittles, gummy bears and even milk chocolate, which are mostly sugar. It may also be a better choice than a cookie or piece of pie because, if you can stick to a couple of squares, you’ll consume fewer calories and less fat and sugar. So go ahead and enjoy a chunk or two of dark chocolate once and a while, but don’t believe it’s a health food—it’s not.
When shopping for dark chocolate, seek out a bar with a high cocoa percentage—85 percent or higher if possible—because more cocoa generally means more flavanols and less filler. Look for dark chocolate with a short ingredients list that names cocoa, cocoa mass or chocolate liquor first, and avoid any products that list sugar first or contain vegetable oils. Finally, choose certified-organic and fair-trade dark chocolate to ensure that it was sourced and produced sustainably and cacao growers were compensated fairly.