What is dark chocolate?
Facts and information about dark chocolate including composition, uses, and health benefits.
Photo Credit: Gleb Vlasenko
Chocolate has many varieties, from pure, unsweetened bitter chocolate to white chocolate which only contains cocoa butter and has no chocolate liqueur at all. Milk chocolate is the classic favorite found in many forms: bars, chips, truffles, sauces, and dips. Sumptuous and exotic, dark chocolate is rapidly growing in popularity and is found in candies, baking, and gourmet treats.
Chocolate flavors depend on the combination of cocoa butter, chocolate liqueur, cocoa solids, sugar, and milk. Unsweetened or baking chocolate has no added sugar or milk, while milk chocolate has a high concentration of sweeteners. There is no legal, manufacturing definition of what makes a chocolate "dark," but in general it contains a higher percentage of chocolate liqueur or cocoa solids and less milk and sugar than milk chocolate. This gives dark chocolate a stronger, more intense flavor than milk chocolate.
Manufacturers use different proportions of cocoa products, milk, and sugar in their dark chocolate recipes. Bittersweet and semisweet are different labels for dark chocolate. Each contains varying degrees of sweeteners, though generally bittersweet chocolates have higher concentrations of chocolate liqueur. Most dark chocolates contain between thirty-five and fifty percent cocoa products, a ratio favored by gourmet bakers. Higher quality dark chocolates may be as much as eighty percent cocoa products, and European varieties are typically darker than American-manufactured dark chocolates. Because of the higher concentration of cocoa products, dark chocolate is slightly more expensive than milk chocolate.
Dark chocolate is used in nearly as many products as milk chocolate. Chips, baking bars, candy bars, frostings, fondue dips, truffles, ice cream, and hot cocoa are all available in dark chocolate flavors. Many chocolate aficionados find that dark chocolate's somewhat bitter taste mellows with age and tastes best several months after it is manufactured. While milk chocolate is the predominant favorite among children, many adults prefer dark chocolate. Scientists theorize that this is because of dark chocolate's stronger taste: as taste buds age they become less sensitive, and dark chocolate is a more prominent flavor for adults.
Chocolate is frequently used to enhance moods. In fact, chocolate contains several chemicals associated with pleasant emotions. For many individuals, chocolate is associated with happy memories such as holidays, birthdays, and other treats. Chocoholics are pleased to note, however, that dark chocolate not only has the mood enhancing qualities all chocolates share, but it is also a healthy treat in moderation.
Chocolate contains different antioxidant chemicals known to prevent heart disease, lower blood pressure, and improve blood flow. Plant phenols from the cacao plant help lower blood pressure, while flavonoids, natural antioxidants also found in green and black teas and red wine, improve the body's blood flow. In fact, dark chocolate contains higher concentrations of flavonoids than these beverages if it is properly manufactured, and it has twice the antioxidants of milk chocolate. Standard manufacturing, however, destroys up to half of chocolate's flavonoids, making it less beneficial. Chocolate lovers must also be aware that despite dark chocolate's health benefits, its high caloric content makes excessive amounts just as unhealthy as other candy products. For maximum effectiveness, a moderate amount of dark chocolate can be substituted for other sweet treats in a healthy diet.
True chocolate connoisseurs revel in the deep, rich flavor of fine dark chocolate. While milk and white chocolates are more common, exotic varieties of dark chocolate are gradually becoming more widespread for candies, sauces, and gourmet treats. Whether it contains fifty or eighty percent cocoa, dark chocolate will always hold a sophisticated place in chocoholics' repertoires.