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Great News: Dark Chocolate Is Healthy and Nutritious If You Follow This Buyer's Guide

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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).

Observational studies have also linked eating dark chocolate with a reduced risk of heart disease and improved brain function (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

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

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

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.

Milk

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.

Flavorings

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.

Trans Fat

If you come across dark chocolate that contains trans fat, avoid it. Trans fat consumption is a significant risk factor for heart disease (8, 9, 10).

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).

Consuming chocolate with a higher cocoa content is associated with several health benefits, such as improved heart health and brain function (1, 11).

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.

However, several research studies have demonstrated that Dutching significantly reduces the amount of antioxidants in chocolate (12, 13).

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

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

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

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

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.

Others

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.

Buyer's Checklist

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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Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

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An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

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