Dark chocolate reviews

Can dark chocolate be ethical, good for you and delicious?
 
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  • Updated:29 Oct 2008
 

01 .Introduction

Chocolate and strawberry

In brief

  • Our panel of expert tasters rated 22 brands of plain dark chocolate with 70-75% cocoa solids.
  • A panel of 65 everyday tasters also rated 15 of the chocolates.
  • Research evidence suggests that eating a small amount of dark chocolate won't do much harm, and may do some good.
  • There are many compelling reasons to choose organic fair trade chocolate, and our taste tests show your taste buds and conscience can be happy.

Please note: this information was current as of October 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


Tips for sustainable living

The good news about the health benefits of chocolate keeps piling up, while the range of fair trade and organic chocolates in supermarkets and health food stores is growing exponentially. Chocoholics finally think they have valid reason to indulge — with good conscience. We give you the facts behind the hype, while our expert tasters give us the verdict on the best chocolate.

Availability and sales of the higher percentage (70%) dark chocolate are increasing as people seek out a cocoa hit that’s not too bitter and not too sweet. We hit the shops looking for blocks of plain dark chocolate with around 70% cocoa solids, and fed them to a panel of chocolate experts who were asked to consider the appearance, snap, aroma, taste and texture.

Sometimes we mere mortals have different tastes from the experts, so we wanted to see what our lay tasters thought – and also whether consumers who are trying to do the right thing by chocolate growers and the environment will be satisfied with the taste of organic and fair trade chocolate. CHOICE staff were more than happy to help find the answers.

Choice verdict

All in all, the evidence suggests that eating a small amount of dark chocolate won’t do much harm, and may do some good. If you enjoy strong dark chocolate, you get more of the good stuff — cocoa — and less of the sugar, and your chocolate craving should be satisfied with less. If you substitute plain dark chocolate for junk food, you may well come out ahead health-wise. On the other hand, there are plenty of other, perhaps healthier, ways to boost your flavonoid intake: fruit and vegetables give you the added benefits of fibre, vitamins and minerals, while straight black or green tea give you a kilojoule-free antioxidant boost.

Is it healthy?

Media reports in recent years have elevated the status of chocolate from guilt-ridden treat to functional food. Yet with more than 40% fat, including about 26% saturated fat, and almost 30% sugar, it’s extraordinary that even dark chocolate, which is considered healthier than milk chocolate, could be considered remotely healthy.

True, it contains a little protein and various minerals, including iron, copper, magnesium and zinc. But its main saving grace is that it contains high levels of flavonoids — chemicals that help protect plants from disease and insects. Gram for gram, cocoa contains higher levels of flavonoids than other renowned sources such as red wine, tea, apples and berries.

Studies researching the benefits of both cocoa and high-cocoa chocolate have shown that it:

  • Improves blood vessel health by increasing the elasticity of artery walls so they can dilate more readily, which in turn affects blood flow volume and pressure.
  • Reduces blood pressure in people with high blood pressure. And the more you eat, the greater the drop. People with normal blood pressure don't appear to be affected.
  • Reduces inflammation and plaque build-up in blood vessels, which can lead to artherosclerosis.
  • Decreases blood platelet activity. By clinging together to make clots and to the sides of blood vessel walls, blood platelets are involved in stroke and other clot-related problems such as thromboses, as well as artherosclerosis. Chocolate has been found to have the same anti-platelet effects as aspirin.
  • Improves cholesterol profile by increasing HDL (good cholesterol) levels and lowering LDLs (bad cholesterol). Even though it contains high levels of saturated fat, one of these fats, stearic acid, is converted to oleic acid — a monounsaturated fat that doesn’t raise cholesterol. Combined with the oleic acids already present in the chocolate, these appear to counteract the negative effects of the other saturated fat, palmitic acid, making it at least blood cholesterol neutral and perhaps even lowering it.
  • Improves insulin resistance and sensitivity.

Does it have to be dark?

Some people really don’t like dark chocolate and would much rather eat milk chocolate. If it means having to eat three times as much to get the same benefit … well, that’s the price that has to be paid for —ahem — good health. The trouble is, it’s not so simple. Some tests suggest that the milk proteins inhibit the absorption of cocoa flavonoids, so even if you eat more milk chocolate to compensate for the lack of cocoa, or eat milk chocolate with higher cocoa content, you still won’t get the same benefit as eating pure dark chocolate.

But evidence for this is contradictory: just as some studies have found that milk reduces flavonoid absorption, others have found it doesn’t. Such discrepancies appear to be in part due to differences between individuals, and in small studies these differences may mask an overall effect.

The theory also suggests that eating or drinking dairy products just before or after dark chocolate reduces its effects, and at least one study has found this to be true. So, while there’s no definitive answer on whether milk inhibits the flavonoids’ effects, you still get more antioxidant bang for your kilojoule buck by eating dark rather than milk chocolate.

It can be healthy, but...

Given all the positive health findings, it’s not surprising that chocolate is being promoted — especially by chocolate companies — as a deliciously useful part of the diet for improving cardiovascular health. Yet many health professionals have hesitated to embrace chocolate as the new cure-all superfood.

One reason is that it’s unclear whether or not short-term trial effects will translate into long-term real-life health benefits. Flavonoids are known to interact with certain proteins, fats, sugars and alcohol, which can affect their absorption. While you can restrict people's diets for a short time while conducting a trial, in a long-term real-life whole-diet perspective, results may not be quite as spectacular. Nor is it known how long any short-term effects will be maintained. So, more long-term studies are needed.

A couple of real-life studies linked long-term regular chocolate consumption with better overall health, but that may be more to do with other demographic and lifestyle factors of the people who choose to eat chocolate than the effects of the chocolate itself.

Another concern is that favourable results are often overemphasised, and what is a statistically significant result is not always clinically significant. That is, there may well have been a measurable difference in blood pressure or cholesterol, but not necessarily enough to make a meaningful difference to a person’s health. It’s been established that there are big differences in the way that people absorb flavonoids, so the effects won’t necessarily be consistent from one person to another.

To add to the confusion, not all chocolate is created equal — levels of flavonoids may depend not only on the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate, but also the growing conditions, initial handling of the cocoa beans and the manufacturing process. What you buy might not be in the same league as what was proven beneficial in tests.

This makes it hard to pin down how much of which chocolate you need for health benefits. And the amount of chocolate consumed in some of these studies is enormous. The 100 grams of chocolate in some studies would account for more than one-quarter of the average person’s daily kilojoule requirements — with little other nutritional benefit. You can understand why health professionals are reluctant to encourage this level of consumption.

Finally, much of the research is conducted or sponsored by the chocolate or cocoa industry, which leaves it open to potential bias, such as not reporting null or negative results.

 
 

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The following products scored the best in our tests: 

What to buy
Brand Price/100g
Connoisseur’s choice
Valrhona Guanaja $14.67
Michael Cluizel Noir de Cacao $9.95
Quality at everyday prices
Lindt Excellence $3.39
Moser Roth Premium Dark (Aldi) $2
Quality with a conscience
Edel Bio $4.61
Cocolo Dark $5.49
  

Our results

Chocolate The best overall was Valrhona Guanaja, followed by Michael Cluizel Noir de Cacao. Both are premium brands manufactured in France, and cost about $10–$15 per 100 grams. While these two were among the most expensive on test, a high price doesn’t guarantee a good score: Max Brenner 100% Pure and Dolfin Chocolat Noir were in the same price range and didn’t score particularly well.

Tied for third place were Lindt Excellence (also manufactured in France) and Moser Roth (German-made, available only from Aldi). These chocolates were equal top in our lay panel test and they’re a lot cheaper than the first two.

Some of the chocolates divided the panel – some loved them and some hated them. We’ve called these mixed emotions in the table.

While not at the top of the table, the organic and/or fair trade chocolates certainly held their own. Edel Bio is the best of the them, and scored well overall. Also scoring well was Aldi’s Just Organic. Unfortunately, it’s going to be discontinued and will be replaced by a fair trade organic chocolate — it might be worth giving it a try to see if it’s as good as the Just Organic.

The panel’s favourites were Cocolo, Lindt and Moser Roth (Aldi). Edel scored well among the people who like dark chocolate. The experts’ favourite, Valrhona, scored quite well, while wooden spoon honours went to Cadbury Old Gold — as it did with the experts. See the lay panel results below.

What the experts say

What the experts say about dark chocolate
Brand (in rank order) Out of 10
Tasting notes
Pack size (g) Country of manufacture Organic certified Price / 100 g ($)
Valrhona Guanaja 70% Dark Bitter 9
Good looking; rich aroma; smooth, silky texture; complex flavour with good length, clean finish.”The way dark chocolate should be.”
75 France 14.67
Michael Cluizel Noir de Cacao 72% 8.5
Shiny; texture almost perfect; not overly bitter, flavoursome, a very good chocolate.
100 France 9.95
Lindt Excellence 70% Cocoa 8
Shiny; silky texture; great cocoa flavour and aftertaste, not as complex as some, well-balanced.
100 France 3.39
Moser Roth Premium Dark 70% Cocoa 8
Fine looking; good aroma; creamy texture; not complex but well-balanced; “love the bitterness”.
125 Germany 2.00
Edel Bio Organic Extra Dark 71% 7.5
Well made, smooth; complex, with fruit and tobacco notes; good length.
80 Holland 4.61
Ghirardelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72% 7
Shiny, good-looking; good cocoa aroma and flavour, smoky, pleasant.
100 USA 8.95
Just Organic Dark 70% (A) 7
Shiny; good snap and melt; pleasant flavour and lingering aftertaste.
100 Germany 1.49
Cocolo Premium Organic Dark 70% 6.5
Appearance a bit dull, good flavour, smooth, “a lovely taste for a dark chocolate”.
100 Switzerland 5.49
Haigh’s Gourmet Dark 70% 6.5
Shiny with rough patches; sweet, pleasant but simple. “Lacks punch.”
100 Australia 8.00
Artisse Organic Extra Dark 71% 6
Distinct snap, smooth, slightly pasty texture, flavoursome, complex. “Good for new dark chocolate tasters.”
100 Switzerland 5.49
Droste Pastilles Extra Dark 75% 6
Shiny, looks good; pleasant tasting but simple, no stand-out flavours.
100 Holland 2.99
Green & Black’s Organic Bittersweet Dark 70% 6
A bit rough; good melt and smooth texture; good flavour, sharp aftertaste.
100 Italy 3.99
Jacques Grand Cru 72% Cacao 6
Looks smooth; slightly waxy/gritty; flavour a bit bland, stale.
100 Belgium 5.95
Max Brenner 100% Pure 70% 5
Dull appearance; excellent texture; simple, one-dimensional, unbalanced, bland.
70 Israel 15
Whittaker’s Dark Ghana 72% 5
Some rough patches; a lilttle chalky/waxy/gritty; strong cocoa; “good chocolate let down by texture”.
250 New Zealand 1.2
Cadbury Old Gold Dark 70% 4
Very sweet for a dark chocolate, unpronounced flavour. “Ordinary.”
220 Australia 1.68
Dolfin Chocolat Noir 70% De Cacao 4
A bit rough, air bubbles; bland, “very weak taste for a dark chocolate”.
70 Belgium 12.71
Mixed emotions
Dagoba Organic Conacado 73% 4-9.5
Rough-looking, waxy texture; pungent, surprising taste, “artificial”. Intense, balanced, excellent.
56.7 USA 10.49
Kaoka Noir 70% 4-8
Shiny with bubbles; waxy/gritty/crumbly; good bitterness and flavour, great cocoa flavour, “very pleasant but pedestrian”.
100 France 5.29
Nestlé Club Noir Intense 70% 5-9
Shiny with a few spots; strong cocoa aroma; smooth texture; good cocoa taste and bitterness, but a little simple. “Too sweet, commercial.”
100 Switzerland 2.99
Ritter Sport Fine Extra Dark 71% 3-7.5
Good texture; good bitterness and cocoa flavour; a bit simple, not distinct enough.
100 Germany 2.99
Scarborough Fair Organic Sinless 70% 3-8
Shiny with bubbles; reasonable snap and melt; completely dominated by caramel notes, buttery.
100 Australia 4.59

Taste test results – everyday eaters

Results – everyday eaters

Expert panel

Five chocolate experts assessed 22 chocolates in the range of 70%–75% cocoa. Brand names were disguised as much as possible without spoiling the appearance of the chocolate.

Experts were asked to consider the appearance, snap, aroma, taste and texture and give a rating out of 10. They also provided tasting notes.

Expert panel

Lay panel

The lay panel consisted of 65 CHOICE employees who each tasted four of the 13 chocolates we selected. Each was tasted 20 times, and tasters were asked to rate the chocolate from zero (dislike a lot) to four (like a lot). We also asked people about their preferences for dark and milk chocolate.  

Cocoa comes from the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao. It originated in the rainforests of South America, but is now grown all over the tropics, including in Australia. There are several varieties of cocoa. The most common variety is Forastero. Criollo and Trinitario (a cross between Forastero and Criollo) are generally considered to be superior varieties.

Cocoa beans grow in large pods (botanically they’re actually berries and the beans are its seeds). After being hand-picked, cocoa pods are husked and the beans removed. If they’re left too long in the pods, the beans start to rot or dry out.

The beans are then allowed to ferment for a length of time determined by the type of bean. Fermentation affects the chemical composition of the cocoa, and has to be done correctly for optimal chocolate flavour.

The beans are then dried, which reduces their acidity and water content. If they’re dried too slowly they may go mouldy; too quickly and the acid levels remain too high. Some companies use substandard beans, inevitably resulting in lower-quality chocolate.

After cleaning and roasting, the dried beans are shelled and separated from the ‘nibs’ inside, which contain about 53% cocoa butter and 47% cocoa solids. The nibs are crushed to form cocoa liquor. At this point the liquor can be separated into cocoa butter and cocoa solids.

To make dark chocolate, the cocoa liquor is mixed with more cocoa butter, sugar is added and often vanilla — beans or ‘flavour’. The product is then ‘conched’, a kneading process that improves its flavour and texture. The longer the conching, the better the quality of chocolate. Time is money, so some companies reduce conching time to reduce costs.

Finally, the chocolate is tempered — heated, cooled and heated again, with frequent stirring — which gives it a glossy finish and a good snap. Faults in this process show up in the appearance of the chocolate — rather than glossy, it’s dull, may have white spots (fat bloom) or a greyish film. It’s then poured into moulds to create the finished product.

Premium chocolate essentials

  • Appearance It should be smooth and shiny.
  • Snap When you break a piece of chocolate it should give a good, clean snap.
  • Aroma In good chocolate, you might be able to detect lots of different smells, such as vanilla, fruit, floral, wine, tobacco, grass and earthy-woody smells. Smoky, burnt, mouldy or dirty smells are a bad sign.
  • Texture The chocolate should be hard and smooth, and melt easily but not too easily. Bad chocolate is gritty, chalky or waxy, and becomes gluggy when it melts in the mouth.
  • Taste Apart from the flavours of cocoa and vanilla, if it’s been added, you might also experience any of the other flavours under ‘aroma’ above. It should also be pleasantly bitter, although ‘pleasant’ is a personal thing. Poor-quality chocolate has a tongue-curling effect caused by acid.

Why choose fair trade chocolate?

As well as the health problems associated with conventional cocoa farming, workers are also subject to the vagaries of the international commodities markets and fluctuating prices of cocoa. Indentured or slave labour and child labour are also not uncommon.

Fair trade logoAwareness of these conditions in developing countries is rapidly growing and fair trade-certified products are becoming more popular and readily available in supermarkets, health food stores and ethical products traders.

The aim of fair trade is to give farmers and workers in developing countries a fair go by paying the producers a fair price for their work. It involves a labelling system that guarantees that certain fair trading standards are met at every stage of production, and ensures that part of the profits generated from a price premium will go back to the farmers and their communities.

There are several certification schemes that have fair trade or social responsibility components, and all have different requirements — some more stringent than others. There are also companies, particularly small ones, that claim to operate according to fair trade principles, but don’t obtain certification because they say costs of infrastructure and auditing would create too great a financial burden on producers and consequently buyers.

Organic farming has social benefits too

  • Fair trade chocolate is almost always organic, including all those in our test. However, organic chocolates, while not always certified fair trade, also tend to be grown in a way that benefits farmers and their communities.
  • Small organic chocolate companies work closely with cocoa farmers. By investing their resources to ensure future yield requirements will be met, they’re providing something of a guarantee to communities that future yields will be purchased and at a certain price.
  •  Buyers pay a premium for organic cocoa. While per hectare yields are lower for organic growers, costs for pesticides and fertilisers may be lower.
  • Growers benefit from better physical health due to reduced exposure to agricultural chemicals
  • Sustainable farming methods and healthier ecosystems ensure the long-term viability of the enterprise and therefore earnings.
  • Finally, many organic certifiers require that labour conditions are fair.

Pesticides in farming

A few years ago, campaigners in the UK called for a lindane-free Easter. Lindane is a carcinogenic pesticide which can also cause damage to the immune system and nervous system while causing hormone disruption, behavioural changes and birth defects. Until recently, it was widely used on cocoa plantations in West Africa, and tests on chocolate in the UK found traces of the chemical in most samples tested.

However, it’s worse for cocoa farmers, who are exposed to far greater amounts of poisonous pesticides when mixing and applying them. They also come into contact with them through accidental spills, inhaled spray drift and drips from drenched leaves, while ground run-off affects drinking water. Cocoa farmers aren’t always properly trained or equipped to use these chemicals safely, and many are illiterate and unable to read directions.

Apart from pesticides’ effects on people in and around plantations, many are also highly toxic to fish, amphibians and beneficial insects such as bees — its use impacts on the surrounding ecosystems and other agriculture.

Some farmers grow cocoa using organic farming methods, which eliminates the use of toxic synthetic pesticides. It also ensures the enterprise is sustainable in the long-term, thanks to improved soil fertility and prevention of erosion. At present less than 1% of world cocoa production is organic.

Reduced pesticide content mandated

A new EU regulation on pesticide use came into force on September 1 2008. The regulations set out the maximum permissible levels of pesticide residues in cocoa, and effectively bans the use of certain pesticides, including lindane, diuron, malathion and DDT, on cocoa plantations. These and several others on the list have long been banned or severely restricted for agricultural use in many developed countries, but are still used in developing countries.

Pesticides considered benign to chocolate consumers are still permitted, provided they meet the residue guidelines. That’s great for consumer confidence and given that much of the chocolate sold in Australia comes from cocoa beans processed in Europe, that covers us.

But some of those still permitted for use can be pretty nasty for cocoa farmers and the environment. And who is to say that the chemicals still approved for use won’t prove problematic in the long term? Many argue that the only safe option is to buy organic — for the sake of the farmers, if not yourself.

Brand and Website Where to buy it Distributer info
Artisse
www.artisse.com.au
Supermarkets*, health food shops, delis
Hampden Trading 1300 555 597
Cadbury
www.cadbury.com.au
Supermarkets, variety stores
Cadbury Schweppes 03 9520 7444
Cocolo
www.cocolo.com.au
Health food shops, IGA
Organic trader 1800 556 676
Dagoba
www.dagobachocolate.com
Health food shops
Glow organics (02) 9482 1082
Dolfin
www.dolfin.be
David Jones, delis, confectionary shops
Apromo Trading (02) 9906 1389
Droste
www.droste.nl
Department stores, supermarkets, delis,
Menora Foods 03 9547 3111
Edel
www.unionchoc.nl
IGA, fruit & veg/ deli barns (eg. Harris Farm, Metro grocer)
Baska Jon 9573 1122
Ghirardelli
www.ghirardelli.com
David Jones
Maranatha Import Export (02) 9894 6247
Green & Black's
www.greenandblacks.com
Supermarkets*, health food shops
Kadac (03) 9584 3266
Haigh’s
haighschocolates.com.au
Haigh's retailers
Haigh's chocolate 08 8372 7000
Jacques
www.barry-callebaut.com
David Jones, confectionary shops
Apromo Trading (02) 9906 1389
Kaoka
www.melrosehealth.com.au
Health food shops, IGA
Melrose Health Foods (03) 9874 7800
Lindt
www.lindt.com
Supermarkets, variety stores, department stores
Lindt & Sprungli (Australia) Pty Ltd (02) 8268 0000
Max Brenner
www.maxbrenner.com.au
Max Brenner retailers
Max Brenner Australia 02 9318 6000
Michael Cluizel
www.cluizel.com
David Jones, gourmet retailers
Apromo Trading (02) 9906 1389
Moser Roth, Just Organic
www.aldi.com.au
Aldi supermarket
Aldi stores
Nestle
www.nestle.com.au
Supermarkets, variety stores
Nestle 02 8756 2000
Ritter Sport
www.ritter-sport.com
David Jones, fruit & veg/ deli barns (eg. Harris Farm, Metro grocer)
Rosco Fine Foods 02 9789 1088
Scarborough Fair
www.scarboroughfairfoods.com/
Coles supermarkets (NSW and VIC) and online
Lighthouse Ventures (02) 9648 1474
Valrhona
www.valrhona.com
Simon Johnson, David Jones, gourmet retailers.
Simon Johnson (02) 8244 8288
Whittaker’s
www.whittakers.co.nz
Supermarkets, variety stores
J H Whittaker & Sons (Aust) 1800 143 197

* Organic/ fair trade chocolates may sometimes be found in the 'health' section of a supermarket, rather than the confectionary aisle, so check both.

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