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4 Feb

What to Look for When Choosing a High-Quality Dark Chocolate

Dark Chocolate MedallionsThis is a guest article from the chocolatiers of Santa Barbara Chocolate. Santa Barbara Chocolate is the supplier of my favorite chocolate, and they’ve been a more than welcome sponsor of PrimalCon since the very beginning, donating boxes of dark chocolate coins for guests to enjoy. PrimalCon attendees can attest, their chocolate is top notch.

As a big fan of really dark chocolate myself – as I know many of you are – I’ve reported on the health benefits of dark chocolate, and explored whether all chocolate is created equal. Still, with all the various labels and terms thrown about these days, choosing a high-quality dark chocolate can be a little confusing. What separates bad from good from best? So I decided to go straight to the source and get expert advice from professional chocolatiers…

Strike the Right Balance

With recent developments and knowledge about the world of chocolate, more and more people are turning to the idea of eating pure chocolate sourced from healthy trees, grown under the care of happy farmers, and produced with quality ingredients. Yet how do you go about finding the excellent dark chocolate with these qualities? There are many components that affect the quality of chocolate and consumers should aim to strike the right balance between harvesting practices, manufacturing processes, quality ingredients and of course, for those conscious consumers, ethically grown and traded. The flavor and texture of any chocolate will naturally reflect these qualities when selecting and tasting chocolate based on the above factors. When you find that chocolate that meets these standards it will delight and inspire your taste buds.

Shade Grown with Love

A chocolate company that starts their journey on the right foot will have an ethical interest in the environment and the farmers. First, look for chocolate that is shade grown in the depths of the green rainforest. There is a huge difference when it comes to shade grown chocolate and sun bleached chocolate. Rather than growing cacao beans on a farm where the plot of land and the branches are exposed to the harsh sunlight, ethical companies use a natural organic approach known as shade grown. This means the cacao plants are planted in the rainforest and given the chance to do what they do best, to stretch for the sun when they need it and to shrink back into the shade when they want to stay cool. The plant works in harmony with nature and can develop the natural and organic way. Mother earth is in the flavor, and with shade grown chocolate you can enjoy the benefits of the sweet damp soil and the earthly nutrients that add to the flavor.

Cacao Tree Forest

How can you tell if a chocolate is shade grown?

Chocolatier’s recommendation: The flavor of the chocolate is the best test. Shade grown chocolate won’t exhibit strong astringency or overly acidic flavors. Rainforest Certified Cacao is another measurement.

Ripened to Perfection

Second, look for chocolate that is sustainably grown and ripened to perfection. The old joke that chocolate is actually a fruit isn’t too far from the truth. Chocolate comes from the fruit known as the theobroma cacao. Just like any fruit, if you want to produce the best taste, you pick it when it is ripe. Unfortunately in our modern world of hustle and bustle and to meet high demands, many companies will rush to harvest the fruit and use pesticides to increase yield. For instance, some companies add artificial enzymes such as acetone or enzymatic polypeptides to their cacao to produce a chocolate flavor and thereby eliminate the traditional and difficult step of cacao fermentation. The traditional process of fermentation is one of the most important steps in making great chocolate flavor. The golden rule to remember when it comes to anything good in life is that it is quality and not quantity. Companies snatching the fruit before it is ripe produce chocolate that is acidic in taste or sometimes green potato like in flavor as the fruit is only partially ripe or not ripened at all. True manufacturers of first class chocolate will not cheat the growing or fermentation process. They encourage sustainable growing practices to reduce pesticide use and only pluck the fruit from the trees when the time is just right.

UTZ Certified

How can you tell if a chocolate is sustainable grown and fermented correctly?

Chocolatier’s recommendation: You’ll notice right away in the flavor. Properly fermented pure chocolate will have the characteristic cocoa flavor without too many other flavors competing. Look for chocolates sourced from cocoa beans that are UTZ Certified as an additional measure.

The Natural Way

The next step in finding premium dark chocolate is to consider the manufacturing process. You are not going to get the definitive taste of chocolate from a company that does a slap dash job when it comes to turning the bean into a bar of luscious and rich dark chocolate. The production process has so much to do with final taste and texture – this is where you can spot the good and the bad from the downright ugly.

Look for chocolate connoisseur companies that have strict manufacturing and quality control practices over the entire production process. These companies handle their production of the cacao bean with care and precision to bring out that true velvety chocolate taste with a supple bitter note that lingers on the tongue. The fruit is not only sustainably grown and fermented properly, but also the beans are roasted and blended with true care to ensure quality. For example, two important phases of chocolate manufacturing that have a significant impact on the final product are the roasting of the cocoa bean and the conching of the chocolate. To reduce cost, companies will over-roast the beans to hide the imperfections of cheap cocoa beans and will under conche the chocolate to save time in production. Companies that care about quality and the essence of taste do not cut corners like these. They roast and conche their beans to perfection and have their manufacturing and quality control processes audited.

Cacao Bean Roasting

How can you tell if a chocolate company has strict manufacturing and quality control practices over the entire production process?

Chocolatier’s recommendation: Look for companies that have ISO and or HACCP Certifications for their manufacturing processes. Does the company exhibit good intentions and care? What does your intuition say?

How can you tell if the cacao has been over-roasted or under conched? 

Chocolatier’s recommendation: Taste the chocolate and see if it is smooth and the sugar doesn’t seem separate. Average chocolate when it melts seems to be in parts (sugar separate from the cocoa butter separate from the cocoa fiber). Premium chocolate will be smooth with a solid marriage of cocoa butter, sugar and cocoa fiber which produces a velvety smooth texture. Over roasted cacao that has shell in it will often have a burnt rubber taste.

Quality Ingredients vs Cheaper Alternatives

The FDA regulates which ingredients can and cannot be used in chocolate, and thus, have issued standard definitions for chocolate. In sum, a quality dark chocolate typically only has three to four ingredients. The main ingredients are cocoa mass, cocoa butter and sugar. However, during the manufacturing process, it is easy for companies to slip in cheaper ingredients to supplement the more expensive quality ingredients. For example, some companies will use low cost artificial sweeteners in their chocolate production rather than real sugar. Also, common practice of some chocolate companies is using cheaper “cocoa butter equivalents” (CBE) such as vegetable or hydrogenated oils rather than the pure cocoa butter. For those true chocolate lovers, watch out for these substitutes in the ingredients. In Europe, manufacturers can add the CBE known as PGPR and not even list it on the ingredients.

Raw Cacao Seeds

Nothing compares to the deep and luxurious taste of the finest, high quality dark chocolate, and nothing else should be used to make it.

How can you tell if a chocolate is using cheaper alternatives in their ingredients?

Chocolatier’s recommendation: Always opt for quality ingredients. Make sure to look at the ingredients label. Make sure the ingredients include cocoa mass (or cocoa liquor), cocoa butter and sugar. Watch out for CBE (cocoa butter equivalents) ingredients such as vegetable or hydrogenated oils. Also, ask if the chocolate is made from Grade AA Cocoa Butter and GMO free cane sugar. Using Grade AA cocoa butter creates that wonderful melting sensation in your mouth that CBE cannot even come close to creating. Cane sugar, when added sparingly, perfectly complements the taste of the cacao bean and produces a finished result that is the very best it can be. Natural vanilla, as long as it isn’t too much, can help accent the chocolate’s nuances too.

Strong Ethics Equals an Honest Taste

Finally, the most important factor worth investigating when seeking high-quality chocolate are the ethics behind the business. You may think this does not have much to do with the taste of the final product but in reality it plays a major role. A standard, run of the mill chocolate company who believes only in profit, will pump out chocolate designed and produced with many cut corners. The result will be a product designed without care for our world. As we say at Santa Barbara Chocolate “save the Earth – it’s the only planet with chocolate.” Choose your chocolate company carefully and look for those who believe in strong ethics and hold integrity close to their heart. A company that is selective over how they produce chocolate from the bud to the bean to the bar is going to put a lot more effort into creating something worthwhile.

Our natural organic approach is an important step in achieving harmony when it comes to chocolate production. The same can be said when it comes to ethically produced chocolate. The sad reality behind the situation is that cheap chocolate and mass produced chocolate can be procured at the disadvantage of the local people. In a world where we are becoming more aware of the hardship faced by others it’s important to take an approach of integrity and be conscious consumers. This means selecting chocolate companies that deal exclusively in ethical trade from the farmers to the family who tirelessly work to bring extraordinary chocolate to our shelves. Making the world a better place for all is certainly worth the small amount of extra expense. That is why our motto at Santa Barbara Chocolate is “Healthy Trees, Happy Farmers, Great Chocolate.”

Healthy Trees, Happy Farmers, Great Chocolate

The Truth Is in the Taste

Once you have discovered a company that is integral to quality ingredients and ethical in their farming, harvesting, and manufacturing practices, then you are well on your way to finding the best high-quality chocolate on the shelves. The final truth will be in the taste. Many dark chocolate connoisseurs enjoy a high percentage of cocoa and only a hint of sweetness. With dark chocolate that is over 75% cocoa you can taste the exotic long notes of flavor that resounds on the tongue and deepens with every bite. Dark chocolate should be smooth, rich and complex regardless of cocoa content. Many chocolatiers think that dark chocolate holds more flavor and depth than red wine and it will ignite all the senses.

When sampling solid dark chocolate, notice the aroma and how it prepares the palate for something magical. As you slip the chocolate onto your tongue a quality dark chocolate will be pleasing in texture and the taste will linger and grow. Dark chocolate is an experience for the senses, and if chosen right can be pure bliss, and a healthy, sweet indulgence.

Support a Company That Does It Right and Get Your Dark Chocolate from Santa Barbara Chocolate

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Read labels. Scharffen berger lists non-gmo soy lecithin specifically, and I’m under the impression if it doesn’t say so it’s likely GMO soy. I prefer to make my own chocolate sauce using organic cacao powder, maca powder, lucuma powder, etc. in a saucepan with some water. You can gently mix in cacao butter if you want to make solid chocolate (in a double boiler).

    Glen wrote on February 8th, 2014
  2. Great post! Thank you for all this great info. My absolute favourite is Green and Black’s 85%!

    Martina wrote on February 8th, 2014
  3. I have never seen such an extensive article on chocolate! This is amazing! I didn’t know so much could go into making quality chocolate. Thank you for this. This is now going to be my guidelines when in search for chocolate.

    Logan Mathis wrote on February 9th, 2014
  4. I like to grab a few dark chocolate covered almonds immediately after a workout. However, I guess I’ve never really checked the ingredients that closely. Very helpful article.

    Phil wrote on February 10th, 2014
  5. We get the Rausch brand here (they have 5 milk and 5 dark ones, we usually buy the 75% because the 80% is often sold out), it has no soy and it is probably the best we can find here plus very affordable. Vivani also is good, even though they make some with crappy fillings. Their 90% is awesome :)

    Nina wrote on February 11th, 2014
  6. Certifications, the FDA, Fair Trade. None of this has to do with quality (which is subjective). It has to do with Price and getting you to ignore (and potentially outlaw) competitors and innovation. If you like the quality and are willing to pay the price, by all means enjoy. All voluntary trade is ethical. What’s *not* ethical is using the political process to outlaw those who’d compete with you. If you want to know how / why we get the food we do, look for those who talk about process regulation.

    Paul wrote on February 12th, 2014
  7. You really can taste the difference between a high and a low quality chocolate. I find that high quality dark chocolates have a “berry” flavour I like.

    Emma wrote on February 13th, 2014
  8. Green & Black’s chocolate opposes I-522 and your right to GMO labeling.

    Thanks for all the other great dark chocolate suggestions!

    brad wrote on March 3rd, 2014
  9. Thanks for this post. I knew most of the info, but did not know the Santa Barbara Chocolate Company! I’m going to head over to their website now and see what kind of chocolate they are producing, as I’m anxious to try it!

    Doreen Pendgracs wrote on April 22nd, 2014
  10. not one day passes with indulging in dark chocolate..ive probably bought over 100 diffferent brands! i prefer bars with no vanilla and soy lechtitin..just pure cocoa and can sugar or maple syrup
    my currents favorites are:
    Mast brothers brooklyn bar
    Enjoy life allergy free dark chocolate
    Vivani dark chocolate
    and Taza plain dark cocoa pure

    each one has a distinct taste some more gritty like taza and some more smoky like mast brother
    Dark chocolate over 70 percent does have some benefits as lowering bp, lowering LDL and raising mood..but one important thing to point out is stearic acid, the main saturated fat, in cocoa actually RAISES LP A levels..i know first hand unfortunately as I have high LP A..i refuse to give up my daily dose, but its not helping in bringing the numbers down. I figure my niacin may balance it out?

    amy e wadsworth wrote on February 2nd, 2015
  11. I just heard on the news this morning that
    chocolate is excellent for cardio and strokes, sounds good to me!1

    Dolores Israel wrote on July 9th, 2015

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