We didn’t think we’d ever find a more important comparison than peanut butter vs. almond butter, but dark vs. milk chocolate? Yes, this is a crucial question (that also happens to be complementary to the first one…).
Many people assume dark chocolate is healthier thanks to its reputation as a source of antioxidants, but do you really know the difference? How does a standard dark chocolate bar actually compare to its milkier counterpart, and what should you look for when you shop for a bar (or two)?
Here’s what you need to know.
Dark Chocolate vs. Milk Chocolate: The Nutrition Facts
First, some basics: It all starts with cacao (or cocoa) beans from the cacao tree.
Cacao beans contain protein, fiber, and are a great source of minerals like iron and magnesium. They’re also rich in powerful antioxidants, particularly flavonoids like catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins. In fact, cacao is a more antioxidant-rich food than most fruits and vegetables. Because of that, eating chocolate has been linked to all kinds of health benefits. Research shows associations with a lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, and stress-relief, among other benefits.
This is where things start to get complicated. While both dark and milk chocolate contain that healthy ingredient, the percentage of it compared to all of the other stuff that’s on the ingredient list is what matters. A milk chocolate bar may contain as little as 10 percent cacao, while a dark chocolate bar may contain up to 90 percent. The more cacao you’re getting, the more you’ll reap the benefits.
Then, the other stuff: If a bar contains only 10 percent cacao, what’s the rest of it? You guessed it: sugar…and milk! In a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar, for example, sugar is the first ingredient, milk is the second, and chocolate is the third. A dark chocolate bar typically has about half the sugar of milk chocolate and contains less (or no) milk. And since it has more cacao, it has more fiber, minerals, and antioxidants.
One quick note: Most chocolate is made from beans that have been roasted at high temperatures. Some is labeled “raw,” which means it’s made by cold-pressing unroasted beans. While some sellers claim chocolate made from raw cacao retains more nutrients, there isn’t solid evidence that shows that’s true, or that the difference is meaningful for health, if it exists.
How to Eat Dark Chocolate
The winner, then, is clearly dark chocolate. The trick is to look for bars with the highest cacao percentage possible and the lowest sugar content. If you can find organic and fair-trade, even better.
Even then, chocolate is calorie-dense and should still be considered a conscious indulgence, not a three-times-a-day food. Eat it sparingly, in small amounts. As in, no, you can’t eat as much chocolate as kale, but you can add it to all kinds of recipes, like these.