This may surprise you, but dark chocolate is a relatively healthy food.
For example, cacao powder is among the biggest food sources of nutrients and polyphenols in the Western diet.
However, not all chocolate is made the same.
This article will examine the health benefits and concerns of dark and milk chocolate, as well as the differences between the two.
Which is better for health?
What is Dark Chocolate?
Dark chocolate is usually a combination of three simple ingredients; cocoa butter, cocoa powder/mass, and some sugar.
Some bars of chocolate also have several additional ingredients such as flavorings and the emulsifier soy lecithin.
A poor quality bar of chocolate may also have vegetable oils in it rather than cocoa butter.
Dark Chocolate Nutrition
Regarding nutrients, dark chocolate is a nutritional powerhouse.
Per 100g of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa solids, there are 605 calories.
It also provides the following nutrients (2):
- 98% of the RDA for Manganese
- 89% of the RDA for Copper
- 67% of the RDA for Iron
- 58% of the RDA for Magnesium
- 22% of the RDA for Zinc
- 21% of the RDA for Potassium
Additionally, dark chocolate also contains 11g of fiber.
However, that’s far from all; dark chocolate also contains several beneficial compounds with wide-reaching health effects.
Key Point: Dark chocolate is one of the most nutrient-dense foods around and contains large amounts of important minerals.
Does Dark Chocolate Contain Dairy?
So long as you buy a relatively decent bar, dark chocolate shouldn’t contain any dairy.
But be aware that many chocolate bars classifying themselves as ‘dark’ are full of sugar and additives like milk powder.
In truth, you should look for dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa — and preferably 85% or higher.
While 40% cocoa may look a little darker than standard milk chocolate, it’s not true dark chocolate and contains lots of sugar.
Beneficial Compounds in Dark Chocolate
Altogether, there are thousands of chemical compounds and phytonutrients in chocolate (3).
Several of the most compelling compounds include theobromine, phenylethylamine, and the vast range of polyphenols.
Similar to caffeine in chemical makeup, theobromine is a stimulant alkaloid.
It should be noted that many people confuse theobromine with caffeine. This confusion is a result of the two sharing similar effects on the body.
However, unlike coffee, the effect of theobromine is milder. This fact makes dark chocolate a better choice for people sensitive to caffeine.
According to a recent study, theobromine may provide antitumoral, anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular protective effects (4).
Otherwise known as PEA, Phenylethylamine is another stimulant compound found in chocolate.
People popularly refer to it as “the love drug” owing to its beneficial effect on mood.
Given this, phenylethylamine can be referred to as a mood elevator.
Upon consumption, phenylethylamine causes the body to release endorphins in the brain—known as ‘feel good chemicals.’
Cocoa is full of beneficial polyphenols and contains a broad range of flavonoids, similar to those found in tea and coffee.
One recent study found that 49g of dark chocolate (71%) is equivalent to a 196ml glass of red wine for antioxidants (12).
With this in mind, if you make it 85% cocoa—or higher—then you only need a small amount.
Key Point: There are hundreds of health-protective compounds in dark chocolate.
Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate has a vast range of beneficial effects on our health.
As a result, moderate consumption may help reduce the risk of modern life’s diseases.
First of all, as previously mentioned dark chocolate is a huge source of micronutrients.
With this in mind, just a few pieces can improve the number of beneficial nutrients you’re consuming, especially magnesium.
One study found that upping magnesium intake from foods like dark chocolate significantly decreases pancreatic cancer risk (13).
While it’s not common knowledge, cocoa is one of the most nutrient-dense foods we have available. It offers far more nutrients than just magnesium.
Cocoa also has a range of specific biological impacts on health which we’ll now examine.
Dark Chocolate and Cardiovascular Benefits
Cocoa and dark chocolate also have a wide range of evidence behind them concerning cardiovascular health benefits.
Several clinical studies show they have beneficial effects on inflammation, blood pressure and cholesterol profile (14).
Additionally, a study released in the British Medical Journal showed a dose-dependent protective effect. This particular study showed that a higher intake of chocolate leads to a lower risk of cardiovascular events.
Further, this association held true up to a quantity of 100g chocolate per day (18).
Of course, I’m not saying to go out and eat a 100g bar of dark chocolate every day. However, a smaller portion could well be beneficial.
A German study also investigated chocolate consumption’s impact on cardiovascular risk. Similar to the previous study, the findings showed that chocolate consumption lowered risk of cardiovascular events.
Specifically, the study demonstrated that higher chocolate consumption improved endothelial function while reducing blood pressure and inflammatory markers (19).
Key Point: Cocoa contains lots of heart-protective antioxidants which help maintain and promote cardiovascular health.
Benefits for Skin
Dark chocolate also benefits the skin in numerous ways.
This mechanism of action likely arises from the large amounts of polyphenols in dark chocolate.
In like manner, coffee consumption also exerts a protective effect on the skin for this same reason.
However, this doesn’t just mean you can eat some chocolate and then go out in the sun—it doesn’t work that way.
The benefits of a healthy diet also occur progressively and over time. Therefore, consuming smaller amounts on a regular basis is the way to go.
According to a recent randomized controlled study in the Journal of Nutrition, cocoa flavanols also have a positive impact on wrinkles and skin elasticity (23).
For this study, Korean women with visible wrinkles either supplemented cocoa flavanols or a placebo for 23 weeks.
The results showed significant improvements in skin elasticity as well as reduced wrinkles in the cocoa supplementation group.
In other words; a bit of dark chocolate is probably good for your beauty regime.
Key Point: Cocoa consumption improves skin appearance and enhances UV resistance.
In 2015, a study revealed that dark chocolate could help with weight loss.
In fact, you can find several websites recommending chocolate as a weight loss aid for this reason.
But of course, there was a significant problem with the study—it was fake.
However, this is a good example of why you shouldn’t blindly believe something that sounds interesting— always research it further for yourself.
While I would never say dark chocolate helps you lose weight, it probably has a positive impact as a replacement for chocolate high in sugar.
Key Point: Don’t believe everything you read.
Harmful Effects of Dark Chocolate
As with most things in the nutrition world, almost all foods have some negative points—chocolate is no exception.
Specifically, concerns linger over the following issues:
- Sugar Content
But is it worth worrying about these risks?
Let’s take a look…
Unfortunately, these claims appear to have some strong foundations.
First, chocolate has a history of being contaminated with lead. One study found that dark chocolate contained roughly 30 to 70 nanograms of lead per gram (24).
However, the researcher behind this study noted that they don’t recommend quitting your chocolate habit.
I’m not going to suggest that you curb your chocolate consumption, chocolate may actually be pretty good for you.
Charley W. Rankin, Researcher
Additionally, in 2015 a consumer group took leading chocolate manufacturers to court.
In short, this was because some manufacturers (Mars and Hershey) were selling chocolate deemed as “unsafe” by Californian law (25).
For further analysis regarding lead in chocolate, see this CNN article.
While some people are aware of the perils of excess sugar, they see nothing wrong with a little dark chocolate.
However, others try to avoid every source of sugar—even the small amounts contained in extra dark varieties.
Personally, while I agree that it’s best to limit sugar, I think small amounts of dark chocolate are acceptable.
Overall, it’s just not worth restricting something with various health benefits for such a small amount. This is especially the case when we consider how little sugar 85%+ chocolate has.
Key Point: The lead contamination is a concern. However, the benefits of dark chocolate outweigh the risks.
What is the Difference Between Dark and Milk Chocolate?
First of all, the clue is in the name; milk chocolate rather surprisingly contains…. milk.
Another clear difference is that milk chocolate has a much milder flavor due to the reduced cocoa content.
Of course, the substitute for this missing cocoa is sugar; not so good for health.
Generally speaking, the nutrients in milk chocolate are the same as dark chocolate (DC).
However, due to the reduced cocoa content and increased sugar, the nutrients occur in smaller quantities.
Per 100g of typical milk chocolate, there are 535 calories.
It also provides the following nutrients (26):
- 24% of the RDA for Manganese (DC = 98%)
- 25% of the RDA for Copper (DC = 89%)
- 13% of the RDA for Iron (DC = 67%)
- 16% of the RDA for Magnesium (DC = 58%)
- 15% of the RDA for Zinc (DC = 22%)
- 11% of the RDA for Potassium (DC = 21%)
Additionally, milk chocolate also contains 3.4g of fiber and 51g of sugar.
Key Point: Dark chocolate is much more nutrient-dense than milk chocolate—and much lower in sugar.
Health Benefits of Milk Chocolate: Is It Good for You?
Milk chocolate has similar but reduced benefits—lesser owing to the lower cocoa content.
Another ‘benefit’ is that milk chocolate also contains less lead contamination.
This reduced lead contamination is a result of the smaller cocoa content in milk chocolate.
While dark chocolate contains 30-70 nanograms, milk chocolate only contains 11-35 nanograms of lead per gram (24).
Harmful Effects of Milk Chocolate
Although the cocoa in milk chocolate is beneficial, there is just too much negative effect from the sugar.
In essence, the majority of commercial milk chocolate is over 50% sugar by weight.
In other words; there is far too much sugar to recommend milk chocolate as a healthy choice.
Another negative of milk chocolate is that these bars are more of a ‘product’ than dark chocolate.
For instance, milk chocolate often contains a bunch of additives. It’s also possible to find milk chocolate bars that include corn syrup and vegetable oil.
Key Points: While milk chocolate does contain some nutrients, and has some positive health impacts, it’s just too high in sugar.
Final Thoughts: Dark Chocolate vs. Milk Chocolate
Overall, it’s understandable why people love any chocolate.
However, there is a clear difference between dark and milk chocolate in terms of health.
While milk chocolate has the advantage of being less prone to lead contamination, dark chocolate wins in all other areas.
To sum up, dark chocolate is rich in nutrients and contains thousands of compounds that may help protect our health.
Last but not least, it tastes amazing.