April 27, 2021

Dark Chocolate vs. Milk Chocolate: Which Is Better?

By Stephanie Garr

If there’s any great debate in the world of cacao, it’s dark chocolate vs. milk chocolate. Most of the world’s chocolate eaters have palates attuned to the latter. To many of us, chocolate is meant to be smooth, creamy, and mouth-smackingly sweet—not the bold, bitter complexity of the naked cacao consumed by cacao’s first discoverers. But dark chocolate is just way healthier, right?

So, which reigns supreme? Let’s dig into the differences between dark chocolate and milk chocolate to see how each compares when it comes to taste, quality, and health benefits.

a stack of dark chocolate bars beside a stack of milk chocolate bars

What Is Dark Chocolate?

At its purest, dark chocolate contains two ingredients: cacao beans and sugar. It can also include vanilla to enhance the flavor and cut the bitterness, and an emulsifier like soy lecithin to lower the chocolate’s viscosity, making it easier to temper and mold into a bar. At To'ak, most of our chocolate, save for our Galapagos Bar, contains only two ingredients: organic cacao beans and cane sugar. And in the case of our Everyday Organic Cacao Powder, the one and only ingredient is cacao

Dark chocolate can contain some milk solids, too, but no more than 12%, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If you choose dark chocolate to avoid consuming milk, though, consider these alarming stats: In 2015, the FDA found that, of 94 dark chocolate bars tested, over 60% contained milk, with only six bars actually listing milk as an ingredient. In 2020, they found that 4 of 52 dark chocolate bars sampled contained potentially hazardous levels of milk allergen.

Dark vs. Semisweet vs. Bittersweet

Aside from this milk guideline, there’s not an official standard for defining dark chocolate in the U.S., other than the requirement that anything labeled “semisweet” or “bittersweet” must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor is the paste of ground cacao nibs, which is roughly half fat, half cacao solids (the part that makes cacao powder).

Semisweet is typically sweeter than bittersweet, but both are essentially marketing terms. You can also have a product called “sweet dark chocolate” that’s only required to have 15% chocolate liquor. In Europe, they get a little more specific: a product listed as “dark chocolate” must have at least 35% dry cocoa solids and 18% cocoa butter.

a bowl of cacao nibs | To'ak Chocolate

The Best Types of Dark Chocolate

To please most palates, it can be much harder to make really good dark chocolate when you’re not relying on milk for creaminess and extra sugar to mask the bitterness (and, often, the flavorlessness if we’re talking low-quality cacao).

The best types of dark chocolate are made to accentuate the complex notes of the cacao bean itself, which can have a flavor profile far more complex than even the finest of wines.

What Is Milk Chocolate?

In the grand timeline of cacao, milk chocolate is but a blip. In 1689, Anglo-Irish physician Sir Hans Sloane may have been the first to merge milk and chocolate when he concocted his “Sir Hans Sloane’s milk chocolate” and sold it as a medicinal drink in London.

It would take nearly 200 more years for Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter to incorporate Nestlé’s just-invented powdered milk into his chocolate, creating the world’s first milk chocolate bar in 1875. Milk chocolate spread far and wide across Europe and into the U.S., where Hershey took a firm hold of the market in the early 20th century.

In its simplest form, milk chocolate contains cacao, sugar, and milk. According to the FDA, milk chocolate in the U.S. must contain at least 10% chocolate liquor and 12% milk solids. Any product with less than 10% must be labeled as “chocolate-flavored.” Still, at its minimum, milk chocolate can barely be considered “chocolate” when sugar makes up the majority of the product.

a teaspoon filled with white sugar

The Best Types of Milk Chocolate

That said, milk chocolate can be of supreme taste, texture, and quality depending on the chocolate maker’s process and the cacao beans and milk used. Milk quality is just as important as cacao quality, too. When not mass-produced, milk can offer varying flavor notes depending on the season and what the cows were eating.

Adding milk to chocolate allows for more experimentation as well. Milk can provide a rich, creamy texture and bring about caramel-like flavors when manipulating roasting techniques and processing temperatures.

In recent years, milk chocolate has evolved beyond the cow with plant-based alternatives, like oat milk, almond milk, cashew milk, and coconut milk. These dairy-free substitutions each offer a unique texture and flavor profile.

glass milk bottles arranged in a line

What Is Dark Milk Chocolate?

Dark milk chocolate is a more recent innovation that offers the best of both worlds—the earthy complexities of dark chocolate combined with the smooth creaminess of traditional milk chocolate. While there’s no official guideline for what can be called “dark milk chocolate,” it generally refers to a bar with a higher cacao percentage (typically around 40%-60%) that also includes milk.

Dark Chocolate vs. Milk Chocolate: Nutrition Facts

Since the definitions of dark chocolate and milk chocolate can vary drastically, it’s hard to determine how the two stack up nutritionally. For a general idea, let’s take a look at a few USDA nutrition facts:

Dark chocolate with 70-85% cacao solids, per 1 oz. (28 grams):

  • Calories: 170
  • Fat: 12.1 g
  • Protein: 2.21 g
  • Carbohydrates: 13 g
  • Fiber: 3.09 g
  • Sugars: 6.8 g

Hershey’s milk chocolate bar (roughly 30% cacao), per 1 oz. (28 grams):

  • Calories: 153
  • Fat: 8.7 g
  • Protein: 2 g
  • Carbohydrates: 16 g
  • Fiber: 0.67 g
  • Sugars: 14 g

You may be surprised to see that milk chocolate has fewer calories and less fat—but that doesn’t make it healthier. (The fats in the dark chocolate are good ones, after all.) Instead, you want to focus on the fiber content—which is barely existent in the milk chocolate bar—and sugar, which is 50% more than the dark chocolate bar.

6 Valentine's Day Chocolates

Dark Chocolate vs. Milk Chocolate: Health Benefits

Of course, the darker the chocolate you consume, the better. Pure 100% cacao is rich in fiber, magnesium, manganese, potassium, iron, copper, and zinc, and is loaded with powerful antioxidants that protect from nearly every type of chronic disease.

*Check out 10 health benefits of cacao here, including its role in protecting your brain and heart, boosting your immune system, and improving your gut and mood.

Dark Chocolate vs. Milk Chocolate: Minerals

When comparing the health benefits between milk chocolate and dark chocolate, consider the average amount of a few key minerals in each:

Dark chocolate with 70-85% cacao solids, per 1 oz. (28 grams):

  • Magnesium: 64.6 mg (16% RDA)
  • Potassium: 203 mg (6% RDA)
  • Iron: 3.37 mg (19% RDA, women, 19-50)

Hershey’s milk chocolate bar (roughly 30% cacao), per 1 oz. (28 grams):

  • Magnesium: 16.8 mg (4.2% RDA)
  • Potassium: 103 mg (2.9% RDA)
  • Iron: 1.0 mg (5.5% RDA, women, 19-50)

In general, dark chocolate contains nearly four times as much magnesium, twice as much potassium, and over three times as much iron.

Dark Chocolate vs. Milk Chocolate: Antioxidants

Another thing to consider is the number of antioxidants in milk chocolate and dark chocolate. This study looked at the amount of flavanols in various foods, including (per 100 g):

  • Chocolate liquor = 1,400 mg
  • Dark (semisweet) chocolate = 170 mg
  • Milk chocolate = 70 mg

It also cites another study that found the average total polyphenol content in dark chocolate to be five times that of milk chocolate.

Now, if you really can’t stomach dark chocolate, you could just add nutrient-rich food scraps—like peanut skins and coffee grounds—to boost antioxidant levels in your milk chocolate, as these scientists attempted. But you still wouldn’t get all the life-giving, mind-expanding properties unique to cacao.

a bar of milk chocolate in the foreground with nuts, blurred, in the background

What’s the Cacao Percentage Mean?

To reap the myriad health benefits of one of the healthiest foods on the planet, we recommend a bar that’s at least 70% cacao. The majority of chocolate bars list the cacao percentage front and center on their label. That percentage reveals how much of the bar comes from cacao beans, whether it’s in the form of chocolate liquor or cocoa butter.

While this number will give you a good indication of how much sugar is in the chocolate bar, it won’t reveal the ratio of cacao solids to cocoa butter used.

Many manufacturers will add cocoa butter to intensify the flavor and improve the texture. While cocoa butter offers its own healthful nutrients—including stearic acid, which can reduce LDL (“the bad”) cholesterol, and vitamins E and K—it’s nothing compared to the nutrient-dense cacao solids.

So, two different bars of the same percentage could vary drastically in flavor, texture, boldness, and antioxidant-richness, depending on the amount of cacao solids and cocoa butter is used. For example, one 70% bar may contain 60% chocolate liquor with an extra 10% cacao butter, while another 70% bar contains all chocolate liquor. The latter would likely contain more fiber, minerals, and antioxidants.

chopped chocolate in a mason jar and on the table

Is Adding Milk to Chocolate Bad?

There’s one more thing that could bring this whole debate to a screeching halt: Adding milk to chocolate may actually impact the bioavailability of cacao’s health-boosting flavanols. This means that any milk added to chocolate may interfere with the absorption of all those antioxidants.

However, the research on this has been rather mixed, with some studies finding that milk has no impact on how our bodies absorb all that goodness.

What to Look For in Your Chocolate Bar

In this great debate over milk chocolate vs. dark chocolate, what ultimately matters is not necessarily the cacao percentage (or whether there’s milk added or not), but the quality of the cacao—and all the other ingredients packed into the bar.

Look at the ingredient list closely. You’ll want to avoid chocolate bars with vegetable oils (which serve as cheap fillers for the much richer, healthier cocoa butter) and opt for those with nothing more than cacao, sugar, (maybe) milk, lecithin, and/or vanilla. Also, do a little research into the company to see how transparent they are about their bean sourcing and entire chocolate-making process.

But if you want the full truth from us: we vote dark chocolate—always.

 

SHARE THIS POST

Related Posts

September 30, 2021

Chocolate 101: A Glossary of Chocolate Terms

Is it cacao or cocoa? What is fair trade chocolate? This comprehensive glossary has everything you need to know about chocolate terminology, from tree to bar to your mouth.
Read More

By Stephanie Garr

August 30, 2021

10 Great Books About Chocolate

Looking for your next great read? Or maybe you're looking to expand your knowledge on all things cacao? These ten book recommendations are perfect for any chocolate enthusiast and are bound to make your search that much easier.
Read More

By Stephanie Garr

June 07, 2021

How To Store Chocolate

How and where you store your chocolate is much more important than you might think. Learn what's the best place for you to keep your chocolate bars and your cacao powder to ensure maximum quality and enjoyment.
Read More

By Stephanie Garr