Great News: Dark Chocolate Is Healthy and Nutritious If You Follow This Buyer's Guide
By Brianna Elliott
Dark chocolate is incredibly healthy and nutritious.
However, there are many brands available and not all of them are created equal.
Dark chocolate is incredibly healthy and nutritious.Shutterstock
Some are better than others, based on the ingredients and processing methods.
So which one should you choose?
Follow this guide to find out everything you need to know about selecting the best dark chocolate.
What Is Dark Chocolate?
Dark chocolate is produced by adding fat and sugar to cocoa. It differs from milk chocolate in that it contains little to no milk solids.
It also goes by other common names, including bittersweet and semisweet chocolate. These differ slightly in sugar content, but can be used interchangeably in cooking and baking.
Usually the simplest way to know if your chocolate is "dark" or not is to select one with a 70 percent or higher total cocoa content.
Dark chocolate is well known for its powerful antioxidant activity. In fact, it has been shown to have a greater antioxidant effect than many high-antioxidant fruits like blueberries and acai berries (1, 2).
Bottom Line: Dark chocolate is a mixture of cocoa, fat and sugar. It is rich in antioxidants and may provide health benefits for the heart and brain.
Ingredients to Look For
It is best to choose dark chocolate made with as few ingredients as possible.
The best dark chocolate always has chocolate liquor or cocoa listed as the first ingredient. There may be several forms of cocoa listed, such as cocoa powder, cocoa nibs and cocoa butter. All of these are acceptable additions to dark chocolate.
Sometimes other ingredients are added to dark chocolate to improve its appearance, flavor and shelf life. Some of these ingredients are harmless, while others can have a negative impact on the overall quality of the chocolate.
Sugar is often added to dark chocolate to balance its bitter taste.
While sugar is an important component of dark chocolate, some brands go overboard.
It is rare to find dark chocolate that doesn't have added sugar. A rule of thumb is to choose a brand that does not have sugar listed first on the ingredients list.
Better yet, choose one that lists sugar last.
Note that the higher the cocoa percentage, the lower the sugar content will be.
Lecithin is an optional ingredient in dark chocolate. It's added to many store-bought chocolates as an emulsifier. It keeps the cocoa and cocoa butter from separating and helps blend flavors.
It is commonly derived from soybeans, so you may see it listed as soy lecithin on the label. Soy lecithin is used in such small amounts in chocolate that it shouldn't pose any concerns about health effects or quality.
When you're selecting a brand, keep in mind that lecithin isn't absolutely necessary to make chocolate.
High-quality dark chocolate shouldn't have any milk added to it.
The only exception would be milk fat. This is essentially butter that has had its moisture and non-fat solids removed.
Chocolate makers sometimes add milk fat to dark chocolate to soften it and add flavor.
Just like lecithin, milk fat is not required to make dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate is often flavored with spices, extracts and oils to improve its taste.
The most common flavoring you will see in dark chocolate is vanilla.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to differentiate on a food label which flavors are natural and which are artificial.
If you want flavored dark chocolate, choose one that is organic. That way you can be sure the flavors are not artificial.
Although it's becoming less common to add trans fat to chocolate, manufacturers sometimes add it to improve shelf life and consistency.
To make sure your chocolate doesn't include trans fat, check the ingredients list. If hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil is present, that means the bar contains trans fat.
Bottom Line: Only a few ingredients are required to make dark chocolate. Avoid brands made with trans fats or large amounts of sugar.
The Optimal Cocoa Percentage
Dark chocolate brands have a wide range of cocoa percentages, which can be confusing. When you're choosing dark chocolate, look for bars that have a cocoa content of 70 percent or higher.
Higher-percentage dark chocolate contains a higher concentration of antioxidants and nutrients compared to chocolate with a lower cocoa percentage (1).
Chocolate with a higher cocoa percentage also tends to be lower in sugar.
Bottom Line: The healthiest dark chocolate contains a cocoa percentage of 70 percent or higher, which provides more antioxidants and health benefits.
Avoid Alkalized or Dutched Dark Chocolate
Dutching is a chocolate processing method that involves treatment with alkali, otherwise known as alkalization.
This method is used to change the color of the chocolate and reduce the bitter flavor.
For this reason, chocolate that has been Dutched should be avoided.
To check whether chocolate has been Dutched, check the ingredients list for something along the lines of "cocoa processed with alkali."
Bottom Line: A process called alkalization, also known as Dutching, has negative effects on the antioxidants in dark chocolate.
Choose Fair-Trade and Organic Chocolate
Choose chocolate made from fair-trade and organic cacao beans whenever possible.
Growing and harvesting cacao beans is a difficult process for the producers.
According to Fair Trade USA, you can ensure the cacao bean farmer earns a fair price for the product by buying fair-trade chocolate.
Choosing organic chocolate may also reduce your exposure to any artificial chemicals or pesticides sprayed on the coffee beans.
Bottom Line: Fair-trade and organic chocolate supports cacao farmers and reduces your exposure to pesticides and artificial chemicals.
A Few Brands to Try
Here are a few high-quality dark chocolate brands for you to check out.
Alter Eco chocolate is fair-trade and organic. They have many types of dark chocolate bars to choose from.
The richest chocolate you can get from them is their Dark Blackout bar, which is 85 percent cocoa. It only contains 6 grams of sugar and four ingredients: cacao beans, cocoa butter, raw cane sugar and vanilla beans.
Pascha Chocolate makes chocolate in an allergen-free facility, so their products are free from common food allergens such as soy, dairy and wheat.
They have a variety of dark chocolate bars that contain up to 85 percent cocoa.
Their commitment to making high-quality chocolate is impressive. They take pride in using only essential ingredients to make their products, such as cocoa, sugar, vanilla and some fruit.
Antidote Chocolate makes potent organic chocolate with ethically sourced cacao beans. Their bars are low in sugar and high in nutrients.
All of their dark chocolate bars have a cocoa content of 70 percent or greater. They even have a bar that contains 100 percent raw cacao.
Equal Exchange chocolate is fair-trade and organic, made with high-quality ingredients.
They carry an Extreme Dark chocolate bar that is made from four ingredients, contains only 4 grams of sugar and has a cocoa percentage of 88 percent.
Keep in mind that these are just a few suggestions. There are many other manufacturers that produce excellent dark chocolate, including Lindt, Green & Black's and others.
Bottom Line: There are many brands of high-quality dark chocolate to choose from. A few examples include Alter Eco, Pascha, Antidote and Equal Exchange.
The best dark chocolate has distinct characteristics, including the following:
- High in cocoa: 70 percent or higher cocoa percentage.
- Cocoa comes first: Cocoa or a form of cocoa is the first ingredient.
- No unnecessary ingredients: Avoid dark chocolate that contains trans fat, milk, artificial flavorings, high amounts of sugar and other unnecessary ingredients.
- No alkali processing: Alkali processing is also known as Dutching. Avoid chocolate processed this way.
- Fair-trade and organic: This type of dark chocolate is more likely to be high-quality, ethically sourced and pesticide-free.
Follow these tips to make sure your dark chocolate is high-quality, rich in antioxidants and of course, delicious.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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