Sharon Terenzi is a chocolate blogger that has been reporting the latest news and trends in the chocolate industry since 2014. She is also an international chocolate judge, freelance writer, and private consultant. Connect with her and other chocolate lovers around the world through her website The Chocolate Journalist or Instagram.
After eight years in the chocolate industry, I think I’ve tasted around 2,500 chocolate bars.
Though milk chocolate (and even white chocolate!) has its place, I'm partial to dark chocolate. At a high cocoa percentage, it can truly showcase cacao's rich flavor and wonderful aromas—not to mention its incredible health benefits. Nowadays, there is enough chocolate available to keep you busy for two or three lifetimes.
There’s wild cacao, single-variety cacao, and vintage cacao. There’s cacao from different regions, grown in unique terroirs, fermented and dried using a variety of methods, and turned into chocolate by an array of talented hands.
In this overwhelming sea of choices, how can you recognize the highest quality and best tasting dark chocolate bars on the market?
To make sure I spend my money right—and wow my taste buds, too—here is what I look at whenever I shop for dark chocolate:
- The cacao origin. How transparent and specific is the company in revealing where they get their cacao from?
- The price tag. Can a brand claim high quality, fair prices, and sustainability if their dark chocolate is extremely cheap?
- The ingredients list. What kind of ingredients are included and how long is the ingredient list?
- The brand’s reputation. How much info can I find on the company and is it convincing?
Let’s dig deeper into these points to help you determine how to find the best dark chocolate.
The Cacao Origin
You may have noticed that even mass-produced chocolate brands are now starting to include the country of origin on their packaging. This is not an indicator for recognizing high-quality dark chocolate. An entire country is a vast space! There could be hundreds of cacao producers in one single country, each one with their own fair or unfair business practices and different cocoa bean qualities.
So, what if they name the region of origin? Even in one single region there are several terroirs, fermentation methods, and cacao varieties. True transparency means that the chocolate brand is willing to pinpoint the precise location of origin, and even reveal how much they pay cacao farmers.
Tip: Look for information on the farm, producer, or cooperative.
As dark chocolate lovers, we shouldn't settle for anything less than the name of the farm, producer, or cooperative. This information gives us the chance to discover more about those specific cacao growers. Chocolate brands that buy fine flavor, premium, and ethical cacao will be happy to shower you with details if you ask them. They will also share the faces behind the cacao and travel to the places of origin to meet their suppliers personally.
If a chocolate brand is willing to tell me exactly where they get their cacao from, then I can trust them. The depth of their transparency is a crucial factor during my shopping.
The Price Tag
Are you really expecting to get the best dark chocolate on the market at a cheap price?
High quality, traceability, fairness to suppliers, and craftsmanship can't possibly be “a steal.” Sure, some mediocre chocolate can questionably be overpriced, but high-quality and ethical chocolate can never be underpriced. Nobody would step into a liquor store, ask for the best red wine on the market and expect to bring it home for a few dollars. So why do we expect the best dark chocolate to be cheap?
Tip: Be suspicious of low prices.
Anything less than $7 for a 100g chocolate bar is suspect. However, compared to other industries and food categories, the best dark chocolate is definitely a more affordable luxury.
Price tags tell you way more than any marketing buzzword ever will. Claiming fine flavor, sustainability, and fair prices to each cocoa farmer while selling chocolate for the price of a pack of gum just doesn't make any sense.
The Ingredients List
Differentiating between an average chocolate bar and a high-quality dark chocolate bar often starts with looking at the ingredients list. The best dark chocolate (without any inclusions) is made with only two or three ingredients: cacao, cane sugar (or another alternative like coconut sugar), and optional cocoa butter. No matter the cacao percentage, any extra ingredient doesn't improve the quality.
Here are other ingredients you may see on a dark chocolate bar:
- Lecithin. This is an emulsifier that makes chocolate easier to handle, especially in big production facilities. It is considered a cheap ingredient used in the place of the more expensive cocoa butter.
- Vanilla or vanillin. Seeing either of these ingredients is also a red flag. When you open a chocolate bar and there’s a strong smell of vanilla, this means the chocolate brand is trying to mask the bad flavors of its cheap cacao.
- Vegetable oils and artificial flavorings. Watch for ingredients like palm oil or other artificial and natural ingredients not meant to be in chocolate. These are just additives that serve no purpose other than to cut corners during production.
- Dairy. The best dark chocolate shouldn’t contain any dairy either (unless it's dark milk chocolate).
All these extra ingredients add no value to dark chocolate, but are actually detrimental to its overall quality.
Tip: Choose dark chocolate with only a few ingredients (cacao + sugar).
Fine cacao is supposed to be the protagonist of dark chocolate. Unless you are looking to buy dark chocolate with added ingredients (salt, fruits, nuts, etc.), nothing else other than sugar—which adds a touch of sweetness, of course—should be included in the ingredients list.
The Company’s Reputation
If I encounter a chocolate company I am not familiar with, I conduct my own research. If they claim that their organic chocolate is fair trade, that's still not enough. First, I check their social media accounts and ask myself the following questions:
- Can I see the faces behind the brand? When chocolate makers are willing to let their faces be associated with their chocolate, you know that they are proud of what they are doing and don’t need to hide behind a logo.
- Can I see the chocolate making process? I look for cacao beans, machines, signs of craftsmanship, and quality. If all I see on their feed is the finished product, that’s not enough info for me to trust the brand.
- What feeling do I get? If the social media accounts of the company feel like a brochure with only product descriptions and fluffy marketing words (like "artisan chocolate" or "non-GMO dark chocolate"), that doesn’t really entice me. Instead, I look for the inspiring stories behind the chocolate, detailed information on the cacao origins, and the chocolate making process.
Tip: Check the company’s social media and website for more behind-the-scenes information.
After checking the social media accounts, I head to the company’s website. I don’t care for cool designs or user-friendly features, but I look for more info:
- Does the company tell me all about the cacao they use?
- Do they have a blog where they share extra info and educational material?
- What’s the story of the company and who are the people behind the brand?
I associate all of this info to the quality of the chocolate. A company that sources fine flavor cacao, follows ethical practices, and is an expert of the craft will want to share that with the world. The more secretive, unclear, and ambiguous a company is, the less I trust the quality of their products.
Finding the Best Dark Chocolate Means Doing Your Research
No matter how high your chocolate intake, all dark chocolate devotees should do the following when shopping for their next dark chocolate bar:
- Check the ingredient list. Is there more than just cacao and sugar?
- Look for a specific cacao origin, beyond the country.
- See if there’s any mention of where or how the cacao is sourced, including the farm, producer, or cooperative.
- Check out the company’s website and social media accounts for more information on their background and chocolate-making process.
- Don’t fall for feel-good imagery and marketing buzzwords.
- Expect to pay a higher-than-average price.
This is how you find the best dark chocolate on the market. Sure, it takes some extra time and research, but it’s worth it.