As a trend, the dark chocolate market has been going from strength to strength in recent years with Confectionarynews.com predicting growth that’s likely to continue throughout the rest of 2021 at least. That being said, it is of course by no means a recent invention. According to History.com, it’s first thought to have been enjoyed in liquid form at religious ceremonies and rituals by the Olmec elite (a civilization based in modern day Southern Mexico) around 4000 years ago, and it was later adopted by the Mayan and Aztec cultures for celebrations or as a dinnertime accompaniment, with the beans even being used as currency in some instances. Needless to say, the chocolate enjoyed by these ancient civilisations was a far cry from the sweeter, higher sugar content confectionary we’re used to today – it was often quite a bitter drink, and was usually mixed with water, honey, chillies and spices in various quantities.
Sweeter varieties only came to pass when the tradition of hot chocolate was brought back to Europe by one of either Christopher Columbus or Hernan Cortes (sources differ on this point) and adapted by the Spanish Court with cane sugar and spices. Chocolate wasn’t converted to bar form until the 18th century by French confectioners and the first commercially produced bar followed some 150 years later, and was the catalyst for the cacophony of chocolate treats available all over the world today.
But during that time, often certainly with an eye to many commercially produced chocolate products manufactured with the bottom line in mind, sugar, dairy, and additives became more important, often at the expense of the cocoa content, as milk, white and (as recently as 2017) ruby chocolate were invented.
But it’s fair to say that as of late, dark chocolate has been enjoying something of a resurgence as many seek out chocolate in its richer, darker form with many high street chains stocking more selective brands with higher cocoa contents, less sugar and often with a multitude of inclusions to boot.
But what is it about dark chocolate that has had more and more people over the years flocking back to it? Primarily of course, it’s often that it’s because it’s chocolate in a purer form, although it may be a surprise to learn that there is no set definitive minimum cocoa content for a chocolate to qualify as ‘dark’ (although the minimum cocoa solids required for a product to qualify as ‘milk chocolate’ under UK law rests at a paltry 20% according to this government website), many manufacturers and bean to bar producers especially are championing higher cocoa contents with even 100% cocoa bars hitting the high street shelves in the last 10 years. This means that consumers can be certain that they really are buying a chocolate bar, rather than a bar where the principal ingredients are sugar or a dairy product. This also often means that there’s more to savour in respect of the distinct flavour of the bar itself depending upon the variety of the bean, where it’s grown and the production process which, like any grape used in wine making; can dramatically change the flavour profiles of the finished bar, as well as its appearance.
Barry Callebaut, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of couverture chocolate, have thoroughly researched the U.S market, deeming that increasingly the consumer is concerned about choosing chocolate with healthier credentials, putting more focus on a product that’s ultimately ‘good for them’. It’s not much of a stretch to see how those opinions might have traversed the pond given many bar producers are placing more focus on bars with added nutritional benefits, like UK company Benefit who have specially curated high cocoa content bars with extra vitamins, protein or energy to appeal to the more health conscious consumer. Through their research, Barry Callebaut also suggest that more consumers are concerned about the trust placed in a product, particularly about if they consider that brand as committing to more ecologically sound production and distribution processes, as well as if the quality of the final bar and the craftsmanship involved to produce it to can help to bolster that trust. British based firm (led by none other than John Cadbury’s great, great, great grandson James Cadbury) Love Cocoa are a prime example of this, as they promise to plant a tree with each bar sold and push the slave free and palm oil free nature of their chocolate, and the plastic free aspect of their packaging.
Tied with this could well be the growing trend of people turning to veganism either as a permanent lifestyle choice, or those adopting elements of it to coincide with their existing regimes for ecological, ethical or dietary reasons. Indeed, Vegan Food & Living.com cite that not only did the amount of vegan food products being released onto the UK market double between 2015 to 2018, the sector also grew in that year by a startling 30% to a jaw dropping 740 million pounds. And with many high street supermarkets brands doing more to champion plant-based produce (of which dark chocolate certainly qualifies), it seems likely that this is a market that will go from strength to strength over the coming years.
Moral and environmental factors seem to be forefront in many consumers minds then, but returning to the aspect of health and wanting to choose chocolate that’s good for us physically, what actually are the benefits of chocolate on a nutritional level? Healthonline.com state that typically a 100g bar with a cocoa content of 70% - 85% contains 11g of fibre, and is a fantastic source of iron, magnesium, copper and manganese, as well as potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium. I can tell that you’re thinking – they sound delicious. But whilst these nutritional benefits are very much required and although dark chocolate has reduced sugar levels by proxy, the calorie count comes in at the hefty figure of around 600, so as ever moderation is key.
Dark chocolate is also loaded with antioxidants that help to boost our immune system, thanks to those endemic organic compounds like polyphenols and catechins that have been proven to aid blood flow, reduce blood pressure and help to prevent heart disease. As a handy bi-product, better blood flow to the brain aids cognitive functioning which has been shown to aid verbal fluency, but dark chocolate also contains stimulants (here’s looking at you caffeine and theobromine) which can help to improve brain function in the short term, without necessarily resulting in you having to count sheep to get that well-earned shut eye after eating your go-to favourite bar (again, moderation is key here). Lifehack.org also rave about dark chocolate being rich in phytonutrients called flavonoids, which far from being a sci-fi villain in the Saturday night pre-watershed television schedule, help to promote good health generally. They also report that moderate consumption of dark chocolate can help to neutralise the hyperactive parts of red blood cells that are prone to clotting so whilst no one need suffer dramatic blood loss as a result of enjoying their favourite dark chocolate treat, those clots that contribute towards heart disease and strokes can be reduced. Coupled with this is a reduction in insulin blood sugar spikes which can be a preventative measure for diabetes, and on a psychological level, eating dark chocolate can even help to relieve stress, as it helps to control the release of the bodies stress hormones, thereby negating the stress response.
All in all then, it seems fair to say that in a controlled intake, dark chocolate can be a balm for the soul, a salve for the nerves and a delight for the tongue.