High Percentage Cacao Chocolate
Healthy Chocolate: At 75%+ Cacao, It’s Probably Good For You
CAPSULE REPORT: Will a chocolate bar a day keep the doctor away? Scientific research to-date indicates that bittersweet chocolate is high in antioxidants, which have many beneficial effects. It’s a long way between this early research and recommended “dosage” levels, but experts agree that the benefits exist are at the 75%+ cacao level—those milk chocolate bars won’t help a bit. But all high percentage bars are not created equal, and we give our choices for the tastiest ones on the planet. With the right bar, you might even enjoy 85% cacao daily—which at 1.5 ounces a day, couldn’t hurt. Four of our selections are kosher, and two are organic.
From the moment it was discovered by Europeans, chocolate was a privileged beverage, reserved exclusively for the elite—first for pleasure, and then for a host of medicinal purposes. Long before that, cacao’s health benefits were touted by the ancient Mesoamericans, who used the roasted and pulverized beans to treat a vast array of illnesses—dysentery, jaundice and even kidney stones. Many centuries before scientists understood antioxidants and how they fight cell damage and prevent disease, people ascribed powers to cacao that just happened to be true—some of them, anyway. Those wealthy enough to enjoy chocolate daily certainly fared better than the less-privileged.
Today, anyone can drink hot chocolate or buy a chocolate bar. But if you want to realize the best benefits that cacao can offer—what those might be, we’ll discuss in the last section—the choice shouldn’t be milk or white. While most connoisseurs agree that 70% is the ideal ratio in which the chocolate and the sugar harmonize to create the most balanced and well-rounded flavor, there are higher percentages that can achieve this equilibrium and throw in a few more antioxidants for good. For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on solid chocolate: chocolate bars from the great producers that are readily available.
Note also that while the potential health benefits of chocolate may be a handsome invitation to eat bar after bar, keep in mind that:
As has often been said, “everything in moderation.” An ounce a day of a fine dark chocolate bar can work into anyone’s diet plan. The Venchi 75% bar has 154 calories per ounce, the milk 159 calories. (By comparison, a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar has 150 calories per ounce.) A good selection of fine chocolates are available in tasting squares or palets, .5 gram wrapped squares that enable one to count out 5 or 6 pieces a day, and also to mix-and-match chocolates from different producers.
†In dark chocolate, where there are no milk solids, the cacao and sugar work in roughly opposite proportions: 75% cacao/25% sugar, 80% cacao/20% sugar, 90% cacao/10% sugar, etc. These proportions are only approximate because, in addition to 1% of the recipe which accounts for the vanilla and emulsifier, fine chocolate producers add extra cocoa butter to their recipes in varying amounts.
Bittersweet chocolates that start at 75% and reach all the way up to 99%, or even 100%, have long been enjoyed by people who like the intense flavor of cacao. The higher the percentage, the less sugar there is in the bar, so the more the pure flavor of the cacao is experienced. But not everyone likes these higher percentage chocolates —or even semisweet dark chocolate, which ranges from 50% to 69% cacao*—simply because they’re accustomed to sweeter chocolate. Children start out eating very sweet milk chocolate, and many people maintain a taste for it. Americans, especially, are accustomed to extra sugar added into everything from bread to tomato sauce. So extra sugar makes chocolate more palatable in much the same manner as adding sugar to coffee.
*There is no universal standard. In America, milk chocolate must have a minimum of 30% cacao, up to 49%. Semisweet is considered 50% to 69% cacao, and bittersweet, 70%+. Europeans consider that bittersweet begins at 65%, and some American producers use the European standard when calling their products “bittersweet.”
Even for people who want the higher concentration of cacao, it is not always advisable to jump directly into the deep end. Regardless of the level of enthusiasm (or the desire for greater health benefits), even the finest unsweetened chocolate can taste terribly bitter and off-putting without proper acclimation. To appreciate the heights of high cacao content chocolate, we recommend that you start right above your current threshold and work your way up. Of course, one can taste a variety of percentages at a chocolate tasting, but start with 70% (or lower, if you wish) and work up to 85% and higher. And if the 85% or 99% seems unpalatable today, return to them in 6 months or a year, after you’ve learned to enjoy to 75% or 85%, respectively.
The next thing to note is that chocolate is an agricultural crop like wine: There are good years and bad years. Also as with wine, some producers do better with different bottlings (the reserve Cabernet may not be as impressive as the regular bottling, or vice versa; the Chardonnay from one property is far superior to the Chardonnay from another, etc.). And, different vintners simply excel at making one type of wine, but not another.
That being said, we’ve tasted almost every high-percentage chocolate bar available, and present to you our favorites: bars that we think best their peers at the particular percentages.
Here we present a selection of bars from prominent chocolatiers in America, Belgium, France and Switzerland. Two names that may be new to you are Theo Chocolate, a young organic chocolate company in Seattle and the first company in the U.S. to make both organic and Fair Trade chocolate from bean (you can watch it being made at the factory); and Endangered Species Chocolate, an Indianapolis company that makes products from cacao that is ethically traded, naturally shade-grown, certified vegan, kosher and organic.
75%. Bonnat and Pralus both have ranges with a baseline cocoa content of 75%. Each chocolate of the two lines is also single origin, so there is extra incentive to taste chocolates of the same percentage from different growing regions of the world.
77%. Chocolove 77%†: Made in Boulder, Colorado, this bar, called Extra Strong Dark, certainly is strong as the name suggests. Extra cocoa butter has been added to soften the flavor, which in turn makes the bar more palatable to people who might not like the higher level of cacao. It has notes of coffee with a chocolaty undertone that will appeal to those seeking a pure cocoa flavor. A 3.2-ounce bar is $2.95 at Chocosphere.com. Certified kosher (dairy) by Tablet K. Read our full review of Chocolove.
80%. Pralus Fortissima 80%: This chocolate that tastes much milder than the cocoa content suggests. However, it still remains sufficiently strong with plenty of good flavor to satisfy those seeking strength and those seeking complexity. A 3.53-ounce bar is $7.99 at Chocosphere.com.
82%. Scharffen Berger 82%†: From Berkeley, California, this bar might shock some taste buds due to the varied nature of the flavor. But overall it’s a good representation of this class of low-eighty-percent chocolates. It’s quite woody with a few lighter fruit notes and a subtle bitterness to add further depth. A 3-ounce bar is $4.35 at Chocosphere.com. Scharffen Berger is certified kosher (parve) by OU. Read our full review of Scharffen Berger chocolate.
84%. Theo Ghana 84%‡: This is most likely the best Ghana chocolate currently available on the market. With its light blueberry tone and mild bitterness laid atop a strapping boldness, there is very little room for improvement here. A 3-ounce bar is $5.50 at Chocosphere.com.
85%. This is a popular percentage to work with: many chocolatiers strive to work the “interval numbers”: 70, 75, 80, 85, etc. Numbers like 84% or 88% occur when the chocolatier’s particular recipe requires a different concentration to achieve the flavor he or she is seeking from the beans at hand.
88%. There aren’t many at this percentage, but two worth trying:
90%. Slitti Tropicale 90%: This could very well be the archetypal Arriba Nacional bar on the market today. In fact, it’s one of the deepest and boldest chocolates available. The impact is simply gigantic and will leave you floored. Better sit down while tasting this one. A 3.5-ounce bar is $8.95 at Chocosphere.com.
99%. Michel Cluizel Noir Infini 99%: This is a sophisticated unsweetened with amazing complexity, including coconut, clove, and orange. The chocolatiness is heavy and very satisfying. Only a little will satisfy, but who can resist? A 1-ounce bar is $2.60 at Chocosphere.com.
100%. Domori 100%: Domori produces an extensive range of unsweetened chocolate bars, but one of the best is the 100% from the Style Line. It’s intensely chocolaty, rivaling Cluizel’s Noir Infini, but Domori’s characteristic fermented nuances add a distinct twist. A 2.6-ounce bar is $5.95 at Chocosphere.com.
We’ve “cherry-picked” these bars for you according to our experience. Browsing through shops, you may find others. Feel free to nibble away, but remember the caveat that not all bars are created equal. Still, you may very well find something wonderful.
Overall Benefits. In general, chocolate and its major component, cacao, offer the following*:
*According to Barry Callebaut, one of the world’s largest producers of fine chocolate.
How Much Should Be Eaten To Benefit? As Robert Steinberg, M.D., co-founder of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, points out in his new book (with co-founder John Scharffenberger, The Essence of Chocolate, no one can yet state conclusively that eating chocolate can help you. It has not yet been proven scientifically and conclusively, in the manner that we know calcium builds strong bones and teeth. Essentially:
In the interim, many healthcare professionals agree, you can’t go wrong with eating an ounce of high percentage cacao chocolate a day. In a recent study at the Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust in the U.K., where subjects ate 1.5 ounces of 85% cacao daily, a new health benefit emerged: chocolate can help combat the symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In 8 weeks of the test, no one gained any weight at all!
And, in case it isn’t perfectly clear, all of the potential benefits accrue to plain bar chocolate. Filled chocolates and truffles contain so little cacao on an ounce-by-ounce comparison that they don’t fit into the equation at all. Not that they shouldn’t be enjoyed—just not in the name of “health.”
Can You Lose Weight On A Chocolate Diet? Astute physicians have warned that the sugar and fat in most chocolate offsets the health benefits of the polyphenols. A Japanese physician and professor at Ibaraki Christian University professor, who specializes in “lifestyle diseases” like hypertension and hardening of the arteries, has a different perspective. In an interview in the February 24, 2007 issue of the Japanese lifestyle magazine Shukan Gendai, Dr. Hiroshige Itakura, maintains that eating chocolate can help you lose weight—under certain conditions.
The greater the cacao content, the more effective its weight loss effects are, Dr. Itakura says. Here’s how he believes the science works:
Dr. Itakura’s research on the topic first appeared in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology (2000, vol. 46, no 4, pp. 199-204). If you’d like to try the diet, he advises that the most effective way to eat chocolate is to let it melt in your mouth.
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