While sugar warnings have seen sales of some of the UK’s biggest milk chocolate brands fall, more of us have turned to the dark side — as sales of some ‘quality’ dark chocolate brands, perceived to be a healthier indulgence, grew 14 per cent in 2017.
Small wonder that mainstream brands want a taste of the action. Galaxy recently launched a ‘Darker Milk’ variety — a blend of milk and dark chocolate, following Cadbury, which introduced its ‘Darkmilk’ version of Dairy Milk last autumn. Many studies suggest a link between dark chocolate and improved health.
Earlier this year, Portuguese researchers reported in the journal Nutrition that eating a few squares of 90 per cent cocoa dark chocolate every day could lower blood pressure.
The benefits are thought to be down to compounds called flavanols in cocoa, particularly one called epicatechin that helps keep blood vessel walls elastic.
Good for you? The benefits of dark chocolate are thought to be down to compounds called flavanols, particularly one called epicatechin that helps keep blood vessel walls elastic
Some of the first evidence that chocolate may be good for the heart came from Panama’s Kuna Indians. When researchers in the Nineties compared data from these remote islanders, who consumed lots of a bitter cocoa drink, with people living in Panama City who didn’t, the cocoa drinkers were found to have better blood pressure and lower rates of diabetes, cancer and stroke.
However, the flavanol content of cocoa beans is reduced dramatically by the processing needed to turn it into chocolate we find palatable — and can vary significantly between products.
‘We know fresh, unprocessed cocoa beans contain 10 per cent flavanols, but processing the beans into chocolate can reduce this to between 0.5 per cent and even as low as 0.001 per cent,’ explains Dr Karin Ried, an associate professor at the National Institute of Integrative Medicine in Melbourne, who has produced a review of the evidence on chocolate and blood pressure for the respected Cochrane Collaboration.
While you might assume the darker the chocolate, the higher the flavanol content, this isn’t necessarily so.
‘Research that compared the flavanol content of 41 different commercial brands of dark and milk chocolate has shown no correlation between the percentage of cocoa and the flavanol content,’ says Dr Ried. ‘When it comes to health, we need to look at not just cocoa and flavanols, but what else is in there.’
This includes the amount of sugar.
‘In general, a higher cocoa content is healthier,’ says Dr Ried. ‘And with a darker chocolate — I’d recommend 75 per cent cocoa solids and up — you also have a higher amount of nutrients such as magnesium (for healthy muscles and nerves), zinc (for a healthy immune system), and iron (to make red blood cells), as well as a little fibre.
‘Darker chocolate also tends to be more satisfying, and you’ll get more caffeine and theobromine, which are mood-enhancing. A couple of squares a day is not a bad thing.’
Here, Duane Mellor, a dietitian and senior teaching fellow at Birmingham’s Aston Medical School, assesses the leading ‘dark’ chocolate products. We then tasted them.
MYPROTEIN DARK HIGH PROTEIN CHOCOLATE
This has whey in it for extra protein, but in the UK most people eat enough protein anyway
70g, £2.99, myprotein.com.Cocoa: 55 per cent. Per 100g: Calories, 543; saturated fat, 21g; protein, 27g; fibre, 8.7g; sugar, 21g; salt, 0.2g
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘This has whey in it for extra protein, but in the UK most people eat enough protein anyway. A glass of skimmed milk would be a better, cheaper option if you really wanted a protein hit post-workout. It is lower in sugar than some other dark chocolate bars with 55 per cent cocoa solids, though.’
TASTE TEST: Rich with a slightly powdery aftertaste.
NOMO DARK CHOCOLATE BAR
Dark chocolate is already be vegan — there shouldn’t be any milk or eggs by definition
85g, £1.99, hollandand barrett.com. Cocoa: 55 per cent. Per 100g: Calories, 552; saturated fat, 21g; protein, 6.8g; fibre, not given; sugar, 46g; salt, 0.02g
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Markets itself as vegan and free from gluten, egg and nuts. Dark chocolate should be vegan — there shouldn’t be any milk or eggs by definition. And makers are not allowed to put gluten in chocolate, apart from added extras, such as wafers or crispy “puffs”. Nutritionally it’s similar to other dark chocolates — labelling it “vegan” doesn’t make it healthier.’
TASTE TEST: Tasty, but with rather an oily texture.
There’s nothing particularly healthy about these “darker milk” versions
85g, £1.Cocoa: 40 per cent. Per 100g: Calories, 562; saturated fat, 22g; protein, 5.8g; fibre, 4.8g; sugar, 48g; salt, 0.08g
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘There’s nothing particularly healthy about these “darker milk” versions of popular chocolate bars. It may have slightly more cocoa than Dairy Milk — 40 per cent compared with 20 per cent in the original — but this is still 48 per cent sugar. What you’re getting is a slightly more grown-up flavour. They’ve also reduced the serving size to encourage people to eat smaller portions of chocolate.’
TASTE TEST: Creamy and sweet, with a deeper flavour than Dairy Milk. Moreish.
CHOCOLOGIC NO ADDED SUGAR DARK CHOCOLATE
This is essentially a reinvention of diabetic chocolate with added fibre
100g, £1.20, tesco.com.Cocoa: 55 per cent. Per 100g: Calories, 432; saturated fat, 21.9g; protein, 5.3g; fibre, 34.8g; sugar, 3.2g; salt, 0.02g
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Marketed as 90 per cent less sugar compared to similar chocolates. It uses the sugar substitute erythritol, a sugar alcohol. It’s essentially a reinvention of diabetic chocolate with added fibre. It is better for teeth and slightly lower in calories. However, in large amounts, erythritol has a laxative effect.’
TASTE TEST: Slightly crumbly, almost dusty texture. Sweet for a dark chocolate, but there’s no satisfying richness.
RAW HALO DARK 85 PER CENT
It’s made from “raw cacao powder” but cacao is just another word for cocoa
70g, £3, waitrose.com. Cocoa: 85 per cent. Per 100g: Calories, 587; saturated fat, 31.7g; protein, 10.8g; fibre, N/A; sugar, 13.8g; salt, 0.2g
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Fresh cocoa beans have a higher flavanol content than commercial chocolate, so a “raw”, or less processed, bar should be more nutritious. However, no research I know of has proved this is the case.
Also, “raw” chocolate has no set definition so it could still have gone through substantial processing. It’s made from “raw cacao powder” but cacao is just another word for cocoa and doesn’t necessarily mean any extra health benefits.’
TASTE TEST: Very bitter, but surprisingly smooth. Slightly cloying aftertaste.
GALAXY DARKER MILK
At 33 per cent cocoa solids, this doesn’t have much cocoa in it and the sugar is on a par with a milk chocolate
110g, £1.50. Cocoa: 33 per cent. Per 100g: Calories, 542; saturated fat, 20g; protein, 6.1g; fibre, not given; sugar, 54g; salt, 0.32g
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘At 33 per cent cocoa solids, this doesn’t have much cocoa in it. [By comparison, regular Galaxy milk chocolate is 25 per cent cocoa solids]. The sugar here is more on a par with a milk chocolate — more than half the bar is sugar. It has 10g (more than two teaspoons) more sugar per 100g than Tesco own-brand dark chocolate.’
TASTE TEST: Very creamy and smooth — not dissimilar to original Galaxy.
HOTEL CHOCOLAT SUPERMILK
It is one of the lowest sugar chocolates that isn’t a pure dark bar — around a quarter of the chocolate is sugar
100g, £3.95, hotelchocolat. com. Cocoa: 65 per cent. Per 100g: Calories, 568; saturated fat, 26.9g; protein, 10g; fibre, N/A; sugar, 24.9g; salt, N/A
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘This is called “supermilk” because it contains more cocoa and less sugar and milk than normal milk chocolate. It is one of the lowest sugar chocolates that isn’t a pure dark bar — around a quarter of the chocolate is sugar (24.9 g per 100g) as opposed to half or more for others. Sugar masks cocoa’s bitterness and the cream in this chocolate presumably does this instead. Slightly higher in saturated fat than other bars blending milk and dark chocolate but still lower than pure dark chocolate options.’
TASTE TEST: With a creamy bite, this tastes like the best of dark and milk chocolate.
MONTEZUMA ABSOLUTE BLACK DARK CHOCOLATE
This is pure cocoa solids, with no added sugar or anything else. It’s also the highest in naturally occurring fibre!
100g, £2.59. Cocoa: 100 per cent. Per 100g: Calories, 601; saturated fat, 33g; protein, 12g; fibre, 17g; sugar, 0.5g; salt, 0.02g
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘This is pure cocoa solids, with no added sugar or anything else. It’s the highest in naturally occurring fibre (Chocologic has more, but some of that is added), which you’d expect it to be as cocoa is rich in fibre and a fifth of this bar would give about a tenth of your daily intake. However, many people would struggle to eat chocolate this dark and bitter.
TASTE TEST: Lingering texture but tasty, given its extreme strength.
IS CHOCOLATE GOOD FOR YOU?
Chocolate is undoubtedly the nation’s favourite dietary vice but lots of research over the years has found that it could actually be good for us.
With more than 300 chemicals in chocolate, scientists are investigating a whole range of health benefits linked to the food.
Researchers at Harvard University studied 8,000 men aged over 65 and found that those who ate modest amounts of chocolate lived almost a year longer than those who ate none.
Dr Neil Martin of the Cognition and Research Centre at Middlesex University exposed people to different smells and measured their brain activity.
The results showed that smell receptors in the nasal passages reacted so strongly to the chemical mix in chocolate that it left people on an emotional high.
A 100g bar of dark chocolate gives you 2.4mg of iron and 90mg of magnesium, around one third of the recommended daily amounts.
White chocolate, on the other hand, contains no cocoa solids, just cocoa butter, and is relatively high in fat. A 100g white Toblerone bar has a whopping 540 calories and 30.7g of fat.
Yet, despite its sugar content, chocolate is said by dentists to be less damaging to the teeth than many other sweets because it tends to be chewed quickly, not sucked.
There are also naturally-occurring tannins in chocolate that help to inhibit the growth of dental plaque.
And there is known to be a substance in all chocolate called phenylethamine (PEA), which is produced naturally by the brain and thought to increase levels of the mood-enhancing chemicals, serotonin and endorphins.
In theory, the more PEA you eat, the more amorous and aroused you feel, which is why chocolate has gained a reputation as an aphrodisiac.
A TV series on the Food Network called Food: Fact or Fiction? looks at how eating chocolate affects the brain.
Researchers found sharing chocolate with a loved one increased oxytocin levels.
This much-loved sweet treat also stimulates theobromine and phenylethylamine.
Phenylethylamine stimulates the release of B-endorphin which stokes the production of dopamine and norepinephrine.
These chemicals flood your system when you’re feeling loving.
Theobromine is chemically similar to caffeine and like its chemical cousin it stimulates the central nervous system and also has mood enhancing effects.