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Crafted from the humble cocoa bean, chocolate is beloved by many. However, if we choose to go vegan, traditional milk and white chocolates are no longer suitable for us because of their dairy content.

So does this mean chocolate is completely off the menu for vegans?

Luckily, no! Most brands of dark chocolate actually contain no dairy whatsoever and with cocoa contents ranging between 50% all the way up to near 100%, there’s an option to suit every taste bud.

The best bit?

Unlike it’s dairy counterpart dark chocolate (sometimes referred to as plain chocolate) also has some wonderful health benefits, which we’ll look at in depth later in this article. First, though, let’s take a look at this fabulous foodstuff in a little more detail.

What is dark chocolate?

bar of dark chocolate broken on a wooden board

Put simply, dark chocolate is chocolate made without milk solids. It also has higher percentages of cocoa butter and cocoa solids than its milk chocolate counterpart and often contains very little sugar (or none at all, depending on the brand).

Origins and history

Dark chocolate has a history spanning around 4,000 years, but it actually started life being consumed as a bitter drink – rather than the solid, sweet block we now know and love. There has even been evidence of chocolate being consumed in what is now modern-day Mexico as early as 1900 B.C.

Ancient history

The ancient Mesoamericans were the first people who cultivated the cacao bean that grows in South American rainforests. They then used to process the bean by drying, fermenting, and grinding it into a paste mixed with water, vanilla, honey, and other spices to make a rich, but bitter-tasting drink.

The cacao bean and its respective by-products were so popular in ancient South American culture that Mayans used to worship a god of cacao and reserved consumption for high priests and rulers whilst the Aztecs coveted the bean so much they used it as currency. So revered was cacao that the official latin name “Theobroma cacao” translates to mean “food of the gods”

cocoa beans in a bowl

Move to Europe

It wasn’t until the 1500s that cacao finally made its way to mainland Europe. Brought over by Spanish conquistadors instead of gold or silver, the bitter cacao was sweetened with cinnamon and cane sugar – but it was still reserved for the wealthy elites.

The Spanish managed to keep their chocolatey secret hidden for over a century – until a royal marriage in 1615. The daughter of Spain’s King Philip III, Anne of Austria, was so smitten with the taste she took her love of chocolate with her to France, presenting the exotic treat to her husband to be, King Louis XIII, as a gift.

From there, its popularity spread and demand grew.

Modern chocolate

dark chocolate squares and truffles

Despite the growing demand, the solid bars that are so familiar to us today weren’t actually produced until 1847.

The scientific production of cacao powder, created by a Dutch chemist in 1828, made the once-expensive product more readily available to the masses. This allowed, with a little food experimentation, a British company J.S. Fry & Sons to make the first solid bar from cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and sugar in the aforementioned year.

This ability to mass-produce a once rare product allowed a bunch of household names – Cadburys, Nestle, and Hershey, for example – to ride the wave of the chocolate boom from the 1800s to 1900s. This boom has yet to slow, with reports stating that we spend 98.2 billion annually on chocolate products (as of 2016).

Producing countries

map of west africa, chocolate producing countries

Cocoa beans grow best when cultivated under the canopy of tropical rainforests – no more than 20 degrees off the equator.

Unsurprisingly, most of the top 10 producing countries are located where there are warm and wet climates – similar to where the bean originated.

Côte d’Ivoire, or the Ivory Coast, produces a whopping 30% of the world’s total cocoa production, supplying companies such as Cadburys and Nestle. Their total crop yield in 2016 was 1,448,992 tonnes – leading the rest of the world by over half a million metric tons.

The other countries sitting in the top 5 are Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Cameroon with South American countries such as Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru just slightly behind.

Quick facts

Before we delve into the health benefits, nutritional profile, manufacturing process, recipes, and more, here are 10 chocolatey facts to think about:

  • Europeans love their chocolate! Estimates show that the average Brit, Swiss, or German citizen consumes 24 pounds of chocolate a year.
  • Making chocolate is super resource intensive, with a single pound of chocolate requiring over 400 cocoa beans.
  • Be wary of chocolate around your furry friends – a compound in chocolate called “theobromine” is extremely poisonous to dogs. Unfortunately, the higher tho cocoa content the higher the levels of theobromine, which means that vegans should be especially wary of their pooch getting into the pantry!
  • The smell of chocolate increases theta brain waves – which trigger relaxation.
  • Chocolate is the only edible substance to completely melt at 93 degrees fahrenheit (just below human body temperature) which is why it melts on the tongue.
  • Chocolate may be more effective in dealing with a stubborn cough than codeine (a common ingredient in cough syrup).
  • Napoleon and Marie Antoinette both loved their chocolate fixes.
  • 100g of dark chocolate contains 43 mg of caffeine – around 20mg less than an ounce shot of espresso.
  • Military chocolate has been a standard addition to US army rations since 1937.
  • Because of climate change, cacao plants are more susceptible to infections – meaning the cocoa plant could go extinct in the next 40 years. (Here’s a counter argument that puts this in balance, just so you don’t start sobbing uncontrollably)

10 chocolate facts infographic by happyhappyvegan.com

Nutritional profile

What’s so great about dark chocolate? Let’s find out…

Macronutrients

100g of dark chocolate (between 70 – 85% cocoa solids) is made up of 1% water, 46% carbohydrates, 43% fat, and 8% protein and contains around 598 calories.

Of the carbohydrate content, 11g is fiber and 24g is sugars.

As for the fat content, 24g is saturated, 12g is monounsaturated, 1g is polyunsaturated and it has 3 mg cholesterol.

Vitamins and minerals

When it comes to vitamins and minerals, dark chocolate has significant levels of iron (92% of the daily recommendation), magnesium (at 64%), phosphorus (at 44%), zinc (at 35%) and vitamin b6 at 29%.

Dark chocolate also contains low levels of vitamins B1, B2, B3 and vitamins E and K, as well as calcium and potassium.

Phytochemicals

Cocoa also contains things called “phytochemicals”.

Phytochemicals are compounds made by a plants metabolism to help it survive. The phytochemicals present in dark chocolate include flavonoids, alkaloids, phenethylamine and caffeine. In dark chocolate, flavanols include monomers, epicatechins, and catechins.

Now, if you’re like us, these fancy words don’t always make a lot of sense. Thankfully, however, science boffins have repeatedly shown that these compounds have many excellent health benefits, and we’ll cover those in the next section.

Woohoo!

Click here to see the full list of nutrients contained in dark chocolate (courtesy of the USDA).

dark chocolate nutrition infographic

Infographic courtesy of liveinthenow.com

Health benefits of dark chocolate

With so many vitamins, minerals and other health-helping compounds – it’s no wonder that dark chocolate is often touted as an elixir for health. But how exactly does it help – and what should you be doing to see the benefits?

Protection from disease

Regular consumption of dark chocolate could prove to be more than just a taste sensation; it could also help protect your body from disease:

Free radicals and antioxidants

In the body, things called “free radicals” have been attributed to many a disease.

 

Essentially, if the body cannot reduce the number of free-radical compounds in the body, it leads to something called “oxidative stress”. This oxidative stress has been shown to play a major part in the formation of things like cancer, arthritis and cardiovascular diseases.

 

To fight this, the human body naturally creates things called “antioxidants”. Antioxidants include vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.

 

How does chocolate help?

It turns out that chocolate – especially dark chocolate – contains high levels of flavonoids and polyphenols – two antioxidants that help to eliminate free radicals from the body.

 

The cocoa in dark chocolate has actually been shown to have the highest levels of these compounds – higher, even, than red wine and tea. There is still research ongoing in the field of antioxidants – but a couple of squares now and then could be making you a disease fighting powerhouse!

Heart health

dark chocolate heart on a wooden background

Having a healthy heart is often the cornerstone to well-being – but who would have thought that indulging in chocolate could be helping you on the way to cardiovascular health?

Flavanols

Flavonols are the compound that gives dark chocolate many of its heart-healthy attributes. Flavanols can lower blood pressure and help increase blood flow to the heart and brain. As well as this, flavanols make blood platelets less “sticky” – lowering your chances of blood clots and strokes.

 

A study comparing flavonoid-rich dark chocolate to flavonoid-free white chocolate was conducted back in 2007. The dark chocolate came up trumps, having had a positive effect on blood flow in healthy adults, whilst the white chocolate showed no significant benefits.

 

Blood pressure

There are actually 4 pages of results on pubmed – all researching the blood pressure benefits of dark chocolate.

 

Polyphenol-rich dark chocolate was shown to significantly reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure in those individuals with diabetes (and high blood pressure), as well as reducing blood sugar.

 

The best bit? They were only consuming 25g a day – all of those benefits with no impact of weight or BMI? Sounds good to us!

Other dark chocolate health benefits

As if the above wasn’t enough, there are several other areas where consuming dark chocolate can be beneficial:

Cognitive function

The chemical compounds known as “flavonoids” have also been shown to increase blood flow to the brain and, as such, may be beneficial in conditions where cerebral blood flow is reduced. As luck would have it, cocoa is jam packed with flavonoids – as is wine and tea.

 

In fact, one study compared over 2,000 adults over the age of seventy and looked at the relationship between high flavanol consumption and cognitive performance. It was shown that higher consumption of flavanol-rich food was associated with improved cognitive performance across several areas.

 

Sun protection

It turns out that those fantastic flavonoids may actually be amazing for the skin too. It is thought that flavanols increase blood flow to the skin as well as increasing its density and hydration.

 

When it comes to sun exposure, the “minimal erythemal dose” or MED is the minimum amount of time exposed to UVB rays needed to cause skin redness.

 

In one study, the MED of 30 individuals increased by almost double after consuming high-flavanol chocolate for 12 weeks. Though this is good news for skin, but if you’re planning a beach vacation we’d still recommend slapping on the cruelty-free sun lotion!

 

Chocolate makes you feel better

Alongside the flavanols and other amazing health compounds, dark chocolate contains something called “phenylethylamine” or PEA.

 

PEA is the same chemical your brain creates when you’re falling in love. It also encourages your brain to make feel-good endorphins – the same things that are released after an exercise session. Endorphins also activate opiate receptors, causing a natural pain-killing effect.

 

On top of this, as we mentioned in our fun chocolate facts above, just the mere whiff of chocolate can make you calmer. The smell of dark chocolate reduced attentiveness in volunteers at Middlesex University where their ‘theta’ brain waves were studied.

 

Interestingly, synthetic chocolate smells had no effect, only the real stuff worked!

Here’s a fun video covering a few more reasons why it makes sense to eat dark chocolate:

How is dark chocolate produced?

Shameful as it is, few of us give little thought to how that silky, delicious bar of chocolate makes its way into our hands and mouths. We aim to put that right in this section:

Growth and harvesting

Cocoa pods grow high up in the tree canopy and are allowed to ripen fully before harvesting. As they ripen, the pods go from green to either orange or golden- red.

 

Because of where they’re grown, and the fact that the pods on the same trees ripen at different times, most cocoa pods are harvested by hand. To pick the ripe pods, the farmer has to climb the trees and cut the pods down with machetes or specialized knives. Sometimes, when the tree gets too tall, long hooks are used instead.

 

The pods are then split open and the beans are separated from the fleshy pulp contained within.

 

Fermentation and drying

Fermentation is a vital step in the production of cocoa as it allows the rich, complex flavors to develop. Fermentation is normally allowed to occur using the natural yeasts present on the pods but sometimes commercial starters are added. The pulp liquifies during this process and pods are normally piled up and covered by leaves for five to seven days.

The fermented beans are then dried in the sun or specialized driers are used to prevent mold growth. This process is normally done until the beans are approximately 6% – 7% moisture.

 

Roasting and grinding

Cocoa beans are roasted at a temperature between 221 and 302 degrees fahrenheit for around 30 minutes. This further allows the flavors to develop and for the shells to “puff up”, making them easier to remove.

The beans are then cracked with a machine and the shells blown away, resulting in cocoa nibs. The cocoa nibs are around 53% cocoa butter and when they are ground in a machine similar to a flour mill it results in a product called chocolate liquor – small particles of nibs suspended in oil. Sometimes the two are separated, producing cocoa butter and a dry ‘cake’ that can be ground into cocoa powder.

Making chocolate

To make chocolate as we know it, chocolate liquor is mixed with other ingredients such as cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and emulsifiers like soya lecithin. This mixture is then further ground between metal drums to reduce the size of particles in the mixture and to evenly distribute the cocoa butter.

Conching

A “conch” is a special type of surface mixer that evenly distributes cocoa butter within the chocolate mixture. It also promotes flavor development through “frictional heat” and helps to smooth out any acidic notes. The end result is a chocolate with a smooth flavor and texture.

 

Conching can take anywhere between 4 hours to 4 days.

 

Tempering

Tempering is the second to last step in the production of chocolate and is used to control “crystallization” in the final product. If you don’t control the crystallization you end up with chocolate covered with “white bloom” which is essentially mottles of cocoa butter on the surface of the chocolate.

 

Tempering is done by first heating chocolate to 113 degrees fahrenheit to melt all of the cocoa butter crystals. It is then cooled to 80 degrees to allow smaller crystals to form.

 

From there, the mixture is then agitated and heated again to 87 degrees to eliminate any larger crystals, leaving only the smallest in the finished product.

 

An alternative method is to add already-tempered chocolate into chocolate heated to 113 degrees, stirring until uniform.

 

Molding

Finally, the tempered chocolate is poured into molds and left to harden. This chocolate is now ready to be packaged and sold.

How to buy dark chocolate

Buying chocolate can actually be quite a minefield – especially with the amount of brands available on the market. So, what should you be looking out for and, most importantly, how can you ensure the product you’re buying is actually vegan?

What to look for

The easiest way to look for good-quality dark chocolate is to keep an eye out for the shortest ingredients list possible.

Some of the best chocolate with the most health benefits will have an ingredients list that only consists of three ingredients: cocoa liquor, cocoa solids, and a little sugar. Emulsifiers, such as lecithin, may be added as well, but they aren’t strictly necessary to make dark chocolate.

Sometimes, flavour is also added, and it can give the chocolate a completely new profile. Things like chilli, orange, and mint are common additions.

Of course, the most important thing to look out for in the ingredients list is the addition of milk, milk powder, or whey – as dairy can sometimes sneak its way into an otherwise vegan-friendly bar of dark chocolate.

Cocoa content

Another thing to bear in mind is the actual cocoa content of the bar. Dark chocolates can range from around 60% all the way up to 95% cocoa.

The benefit of the higher cocoa bars is that there will be a lower sugar content and a higher amount of cocoa – and cocoa is the stuff with all of the health benefits!

dark chocolate in various forms

Things to avoid

Avoid any chocolate that has gone through a process called ‘dutching’. This process treats cocoa with an alkali agent to reduce some of the natural bitterness. However, this also dramatically reduces the antioxidant profile of cocoa – meaning you’ll be missing out on much of the good stuff!

Trans fat is another potential additive in chocolate – and one that should be avoided at all costs, as they can significantly increase your risk of heart disease. On the label, keep an eye out for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil.

Should you buy organic?

Organic means none of the ingredients used to create your bar of chocolate will contain toxic pesticides or harsh chemicals. By buying organic chocolate you will be supporting farming that has little negative effect on biodiversity.

However, other than supporting certain farming practices, there is little reason to specifically look out for organic chocolate. Because of the rigorous processing cocoa pods go through before becoming a bar of chocolate, a minuscule (if any!) amount of pesticides or chemicals will be in the remaining product.

It’s a matter of personal choice, as there’s no solid evidence regarding increased health benefits, but organic processes can have a positive impact on the environment – so, if it’s within budget, maybe look out for a few organic brands now and then.

Fair trade

fair trade chocolate

In our opinion, you should always buy Fair Trade. Fair Trade means that farmers get paid a fair price for their products which can then further support their communities. As cocoa is often grown in poorer countries, it’s really important that we support them by paying them fairly.

Storing dark chocolate

Chocolate is very sensitive to temperature and humidity.

Of course, the low melting point is a bonus when it comes to mouth-feel and flavor, but it also means when the mercury rises your chocolate may end up in a puddle!

If you live in a warmer climate, you may be best storing your bars in the fridge. This, however, should only happen if the coolest closet available is above 82 degrees fahrenheit, as storing chocolate in the fridge can dull the taste significantly and promote sugar bloom (more on this in a sec).

Cooler climes can get away with a cool, dark cupboard. Ideal storage temperatures are between 59 and 63 degrees fahrenheit.

Packaging

dark chocolate in a gold foil wrapper on a blue stained wooden table

To get the best out of your bars, keep them wrapped tightly in their original packaging or wrap opened bars with foil.

Popping them into a Tupperware container is always advisable, too. Why? Well chocolate has a habit of taking on the flavors of food it’s stored next to – and no one likes the sound of onion or garlic chocolate!

Bloom

There are two types of bloom – fat and sugar.

Bloom is the white, patchy discoloration you may spot on the surface of a chocolate bar.

Fat bloom is caused by temperature fluctuations, or exceeding 75 degrees fahrenheit, whilst sugar bloom is caused by temperatures below 59 degrees fahrenheit or excess humidity. To distinguish between the two, give the chocolate a quick rub. If the bloom disappears, it is fat.

Although it doesn’t look great, chocolate with bloom is perfectly safe to eat – if you’re still put off, either re-temper or use the chocolate in a recipe.

Need to re-temper some “bloomed” chocolate? Check out this video which gives you a step by step of the method you should follow:

Dark chocolate recipes

While eating a bar of plain chocolate straight from the wrapper is fine by us, sometimes whipping up a recipe can be fun, too. Here are some of our favorites:

Pumpkin Chocolate Muffins

chocolate and pumpkin muffins

For those of you out there that are both vegan and gluten free, these muffins are sure to hit the spot. Using pumpkin puree to keep them moist also gives a healthy kick whilst still keeping an indulgent chocolate hit.

One Bowl Chocolate Hazelnut Cake

one bowl vegan chocolate cake

What’s better than chocolate cake? Chocolate cake made in one bowl! Minimal mess for maximum taste, this recipes utilizes hazelnut to give a flavor reminiscent of that ubiquitous spread, Nutella, without the dairy.

Vegan Chocolate Cookies

vegan chocolate cookies

Short on time? These cookies bake in just ten minutes! Just ten minutes to gooey, chocolatey goodness – what more could you ask for?

Vegan Chocolate Pudding

chocolate puddings with strawberries

Looking for something creamy, tasty, and reminiscent of childhood in one little pot? Check out this really simple recipe for a Vegan Chocolate Pudding.

Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

chocolate peanut butter cups

Missing Reeses? This recipe will definitely hit the spot. No dairy and a short list of ingredients makes this recipe a winner – especially when compared to their commercial equivalent!

Salted Chocolate Cream Tart

salted chocolate tart on a white plate with a strawberry and other fruits

If you need a show stopping dessert that really has the “wow!” factor then check this recipe out. The ingredient list and method for this one is a little longer and more extensive – but don’t let that put you off because you’ll be left with a creamy, decadent, chocolate treat.

Still looking for that perfect chocolate recipe? We’ve compiled some more fine chocolate recipes for you to tackle. Have a hankering for some brownies? Our vegan brownie recipe roundup lists 21 for you to try – so you’ll be spoilt for choice!

Are there any downsides?

So, chocolate is tasty, versatile, and has some great health properties – but it does have some downsides for certain people.

Eating too much is far from ideal, either, and we’ve given some examples here, so the main thing to remember is that moderation is key.

Heartburn

For some people, the theobromine in chocolate may be a factor in heartburn. A study has shown that theobromine may affect how the lower esophageal sphincter muscle allows stomach acids in to the esophagus.

Theobromine poisoning, whilst more common in domestic animals like dogs and cats, can also occur in humans. Daily intake of between 50 – 100g or cocoa rich chocolate a day has also been associated with sweating, trembling, and migraines.

If you have some furry companions in your house, always ensure that your dark chocolate stash is out of their reach – theobromine can cause symptoms in humans, but it is extremely toxic to your pets.

chocolate: a danger to dogs

Kidney stones

Chocolate and cocoa have moderate to high levels of oxalate, and oxalate can cause the production of kidney stones in those that are susceptible.

It’s the oxalate that creates “crystals” in the urine. When they clump together, this is what forms those painful stones. Should you be someone who is prone to kidney stones, make sure you keep hydrated and consume high-oxalate foods in moderation.

Lead

The production and cultivation of cocoa beans can mean that they absorb lead from the environment.

Luckily, in commercial chocolate, consumption would be below the daily tolerable limit. However, another study showed that one 10g square of chocolate may contain up to 20% of the daily tolerable limit in children.

Because of this, we would suggest keeping your kids chocolate consumption moderate so as to mitigate any risks. Good luck with that!

Obesity

Chocolate is a very energy-dense food. High levels of cocoa butter (fats) and sugar means the calorie content can be high.

Of course, in a balanced diet with someone who has a moderately active lifestyle, consumption won’t be of any concern. However, if you are sedentary or consume excessive amounts, this can put your body into a calorie excess, causing weight gain.

If you’re worried, be sure to limit your consumption to a treat now and then – rather than consuming large amounts daily.

Dark chocolate 101…done!

chocolate covered strawberries on a wooden board

So there we have it…the pros, the cons, and everything between when it comes to dark chocolate.

We’ve learnt that not only is chocolate delicious (and makes us feel good while eating it!) it also has some wonderful health benefits, too.

Next time you’re tucking into a bar of the finest and feeling guilty about it – well, don’t! With all of the health benefits, vitamins, minerals, and mood enhancing effects there’s no reason why dark chocolate shouldn’t be a part of a balanced vegan diet.

Do you have a favourite vegan dark chocolate brand, recipe, or fun fact to share? Be sure to add it to the comments below!

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