As if the thought of savoring a square (or a whole bar) of dark chocolate wasn’t enticing enough, dark chocolate’s health claims are pretty appealing too. We’ve heard everything: It lowers blood pressure, busts stress, improves cognitive function, protects your skin, and more. But before you eat your way to the bottom of a heart-shaped box, check out what experts had to say about how healthy this treat actually is.
The health benefits of dark chocolate
There’s been lots of research on dark chocolate, but the hype has outpaced the science. Translation: It won’t instantly or directly accomplish any of the above. What is certain is that cocoa is rich in three types of flavonoids—phytochemicals in nearly all plant-based foods that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant powers. This is important because chronic inflammation is linked to conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, metabolic syndrome, asthma, heart disease, and cancer.
“These compounds also benefit cardiovascular health by improving blood flow, reducing the risk of clotting, and improving blood pressure levels,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Cocoa is also rich in iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium, all critical minerals needed for healthy blood, immunity, and cell growth.
How to choose the healthiest chocolate
To get more bang in your bar, reach for dark chocolate with a cocoa percentage of 70% or higher. (More cocoa equals more flavonoids.) Chocolate, cocoa, or cacao should appear first on the ingredient list, which means there’s the most of it by weight. If sugar is first on the list or you see words you can’t pronounce, steer clear, or you’ll likely be pumping yourself full of empty calories and fillers, which negate all the good stuff, says Lisa R. Young, Ph.D., R.D.N., an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and the author of Finally Full, Finally Slim.
And pay attention to the label: Dutch-processed cocoa tends to have a reduced flavonoid content because of how the chocolate is processed, while one recent study found that cocoa beans from Colombia had the highest flavonoid content, likely because of things like plant variety and geography.
Is milk chocolate healthy at all?
If dark chocolate tastes too bitter for you, dark milk chocolate is a pretty sweet compromise—it has less sugar and more cocoa than traditional milk chocolate, which may have as little as 10%. If it says “milk chocolate” but has a cocoa percentage of 38% or higher, you’ll know it’s dark milk.
What about serving size?
There’s no magic quantity of dark chocolate you need to eat to get those flavonoids; the dosage used in studies varies. But experts agree that you should treat it like you would any other piece of candy and consume it in moderation.
“It’s best reserved as a treat,” says Young. “Yes, it does contain antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins, and minerals, but let’s not call it a health food—it still contains plenty of sugar and fat.” In other words, aim for 1/4 of a full-size bar. With all of this in mind, here are the best healthy chocolate bar options to consider: