Written with dark chocolate all over my face in Cerritos, CA
It’s hard for me to even write this post. Just thinking about dark chocolate makes me go all weak in the knees. It’s safe to say that if dark chocolate had fingers, I’d go Beyoncé and put a ring on it. Truth be told, dark chocolate is definitely my guilty pleasure and probably my biggest vice, even on the paleo diet. I’ve been known to eat it for breakfast, eat it while in the shower, and even dip it into jars of coconut oil and eat it like that (thanks, David Millar).
This post is dedicated to all the dark chocolate lovers out there and to the reasons that we should eat more of it. Can I get a whoop whoop?
Table of Contents
History of The Good Stuff
Personally I’m a knowledge junkie. I get pretty damn giddy over any new piece of information thrown my way. Just a lover for learning I guess. So here’s a quick little history lesson.
Dark chocolate is derived from the cacao bean, which grows on the cacao tree (makes sense). There is a Greek translation: “theobroma cacao.” Theo is the Greek word for “god” and broma means “food.” Thus the word “theobroma” means “food of the gods”.
If dark chocolate is good enough for the gods, than it’s good enough for me.
There are four major types of cacao bean:
- Criollo: Native to Mexico and Central America
- Forastero: Mostly cultivated in Africa
- Trinitario: Actually a crossbreed of the Criollo and Forastero. Usually found in Central and South America but in parts of Asia as well.
- Nacional: Typically found in South America, west of the Andes. The Nacional is the most difficult to grow.
These tropical trees produce chocolate in the raw. (We then ruin it by adding fat, sugar, and artificial sweeteners that none of us can pronounce.) Each bean has a distinct flavor due to the climate, type and quality of soil, amount of sunlight, and amount of rain the tree is exposed to.
What if I told you I’d give you a pound of cacao for your member’s only jacket (those who don’t know what I’m talking about, click here.)? Well that’s exactly what people did. Cacao was originally discovered in the Amazon rain forest (what good things aren’t, right?) and was often used as a drink or as currency rather than food.
So when did the sweet bean go corporate? Swiss inventor Rodolphe Lindt discovered a process known as conching (sounds kinky), which allowed raw cacao to be rolled out to develop the smoother, richer texture we’re familiar with today.
I hung a picture of good ol’Rodolphe above my bed in order to pay my respects. Creepy? Yes. Necessary? Yes.
It wasn’t until Henri Nestlé and Daniel Peter began to add milk to this concoction that milk chocolate was born.
What Exactly Is Dark Chocolate?
Dark chocolate is essentially chocolate without the milk solids added to it. The more milk solids in chocolate, the lower the percentage you will see on the wrapper (70%, 85%, 100%, etc.). So when you see a package of Lindt dark chocolate and it reads 90% dark chocolate, you know that figure represents the percentage of cacao solids in the bar.
Dark chocolate is usually made up of cacao, sugar, and emulsifiers (soy lecithin, for texture). The higher the percentage of cacao in the bar, the fewer milk solids, sugar, and emulsifiers it contains. This is why getting as close to 100% dark chocolate is so important. More on this a little later.
You’ll often come across different names like bittersweet, semi-sweet, unsweetened, or baker’s chocolate.
Bittersweet: Contains a minimum of 35% cacao solids. The most bitter chocolate contains at least 50% cacao solids but can contain varying amounts of sugar so be cautious. Read labels and see how much sugar is added. Look for brands with less than ten grams, which is usually 80% or darker chocolate.
Semi-sweet: Also usually contains a minimum of 35% cacao solids. You probably think of semi-sweet being sweeter than bittersweet but that might not be the case. As with bittersweet, there are varying amounts of sugar in semi-sweet chocolate. For the most part you will often find more sugar added to the semi-sweet labels but that won’t always be the case.
Unsweetened, AKA baker’s, AKA heaven, AKA yum, yum, gimme sum: Unsweetened or baker’s chocolate is for the rebel, the misfit, the thrill seeker. When you first bite into a piece of baker’s chocolate, there is a real good change your face will look like this (face). It contains almost no sugar and has a taste that is extremely bitter. I LOVE IT! So much so that I’d shout it from the rooftops.
Why Is Dark Chocolate Good for Us?
One of the main benefits you will hear dark chocolate lovers like myself preaching is dark chocolate’s ability to gobble up free radicals, which are often potent in heart disease, eye degeneration, and even cancer.
The sh*tty thing about free radicals is that our bodies actually produce them. Every breath you take, every move you make (wait, am I reciting a Police song?).
Back on track.
Every thing we eat and really everything we do creates free radicals in our bodies. Free radicals are like the Hamburgler but instead of stealing hamburgers they are steal electrons from our bodies. This is because they are missing one electron and are basically jealous of the healthy cells in your body. Antioxidants are one way to combat this.
Luckily for us, the antioxidant capacity of dark chocolate, or more specifically the cacao bean, is un-matched. So all this talk about super foods like acai, pomegranate, and the latest thing found in some jungle can go to heck. The cacao bean is the real super food.
An important thing to remember though is that processing the cacao bean through mixing, cutting, and adding ingredients lowers the antioxidant capacity. This is again why it is so important to get as close to 100% dark chocolate as you can.
Dark chocolate has also been found to lower blood pressure, improve insulin resistance, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and help with blood clots (studies linked below, if you’re interested.)
Some of the beneficial nutrients found in dark chocolate:
- Theobromine: A mild stimulant with a slight diuretic effect that helps to push out toxins. Can also give you a slight/very mild “rush” and acts as a mood enhancement.
- Phenlethylamine: Mood enhancer and a low potency antidepressant. Works similarly to dopamine and adrenaline in the body. It can also increase levels of serotonin in the brain that can help if you are feeling down, depressed, or dealing with PMS. Can also increase circulation and reduce cholesterol.
Dark chocolate contains many essential minerals like magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, manganese, and the vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, E, and Pantothenic acid.
But what about the fat I see on the label? The good news is that the fat in dark chocolate is often saturated and mono-saturated fat and very little polyunsaturated fat, which can be toxic in our bodies (1).
I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t saturated fat bad for me? Absolutely not. Besides, most of the saturated fat in dark chocolate is from stearic acid, which ends up having a neutral effect (2) on cholesterol, which is often a concern for many when they think about saturated fat.
Just in case you haven’t got the hint yet, we’ve got one more reason to eat some dark chocolate coming up.
Dark chocolate is loaded with polyphenols, especially flavonoids. You may have read an article or two about the benefits of polyphenols or flavonoids recently. I feel like I see one pop up every couple of days or so. Polyphenols are often cited as being extremely anti-inflammatory and contributing to lower rates of cardiovascular disease and even cancer (3). As with all studies and research, take these articles with a grain of salt but, as of now, all things point to A-OK when it comes to polyphenols.
What To Look for When Shopping for Dark Chocolate
Always choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate despite what talking M&M’s say.
- Antioxidants are higher in dark chocolate.
- Milk chocolate and the ingredients in it (sugar, trans fats, milk solids, artificial sweeteners to name a few) can lead to hardening of arteries, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, and weakening of the immune system.
- Milk can interfere with the absorption of vital nutrients, especially those flavonoids.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, always opt for 70% or darker and, in this guy’s humble opinion, for 85% and higher. The more naturally occurring cacao that is available, the greater the benefit.
Read labels and look for dark chocolate that has as little sugar as possible (under ten grams). Keep skimming and look for vegetable fat as an ingredient. If it is on there, keep shopping around.
Here is an example of a Lindt 85% dark chocolate label (I am not a shareholder in Lindt… yet):
- Cocoa powder
- Cocoa butter
- Demerara sugar
- Vanilla beans
- May contain traces of peanuts/tree nuts/milk/soybean
Look for labels that say “dried in the sun” as opposed to “roasting”. This process helps to keep the antioxidant levels higher as well.
Store-bought dark chocolate is often processed and removes polyphenols and flavonoids. This process is called dutching and is done in order to remove the bitterness from polyphenols and flavonoids. Most of us shop at stores, so combat this by opting for the darkest chocolate possible.
Look for brands that mention that the chocolate was at a temperate of less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Not all labels mention temperature but, if you happen to find one that does, it is usually a good bet.
How To, How Much, And How About Now?
Moderation is always a safe bet, even when it comes to the things that are best for us. Exercise is great for us but too much can be detrimental. And, as sad as I am to say this, too much dark chocolate can also be bad.
A square or two a day is a great way to kill a sweet tooth or to get in a quick snack if you need to stabilize your blood sugar levels. It can also be a great little energy boost and mood enhancer.
Although dairy may interfere with the absorption of some of the nutrients mentioned earlier, melting some dark chocolate in a glass of raw milk can be a pretty awesome and nostalgic drink to have during a cold afternoon.
If you are worried about the bitterness of dark chocolate, don’t be, especially if you’ve been doing the paleo thing for a little while. The lower sugar intake should have reset your palate and your taste buds should be operating normally now.
A couple of my personal favorites:
- Lindt 90%
- Endangered Species 88%
Who am I kidding? I like them all.
So let’s hear it. What are some of your favorite dark chocolate brands? What is the weirdest way you have enjoyed the food of the gods?
Photo credit: Everjean
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