It’s time to face the hot-button issue threatening to tear our world apart: what kind of chocolate is the right kind of chocolate?
People, please. Let’s keep this civil.
On one side of the mat: Milk chocolate. Milk chocolate is pure innocence and joy — it’s trick-or-treating, paper valentines, and Saturday cartoons rolled into every sweet bite.
On the other side of the mat: Dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is adulthood in edible form — mature and refined, with just a touch of the bitterness and complexity that go along with growing up.
There are ardent supporters and detractors on each side. But do we truly understand one another? What exactly is the difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate, other than everything? Basically, it boils down to these four factors:
All chocolate starts with cacao, a naturally bitter bean, which is then mixed with other ingredients to make it more palatable. Milk chocolate can contain anywhere between 10% and 40% cacao, while dark chocolate tends to land somewhere between 60% and 85%, hence its more bitter taste. What happens to the cacao next is another debate for another day — nearly all mass-produced chocolate, both milk and dark, is roasted to bring out the chocolatey flavor of the cacao, but some dark chocolate aficionados favor unroasted, unprocessed cacao to preserve the natural characteristics of the bean.
Sugar and Fat
To cut through cacao’s bitterness and turn it into creamy chocolate, chocolatiers add some form of fat and sugar. For dark chocolate, that usually means the cacao’s natural cocoa butter plus a touch of sweetness — that’s part of what makes it seem like the more responsible, respectable option. For milk chocolate, it’s usually condensed milk and a generous powdering of sugar — that’s what makes it so gosh-darned delicious.
Unsurprisingly, milk chocolate contains milk. The real surprise is that sometimes dark chocolate does too! By its strictest definition, dark chocolate should contain just cacao, cocoa butter, sugar, and an emulsifier to hold it together — but as people with milk allergies know all too well, that isn’t always the case. Some dark chocolate products list milk in their ingredient panel, but even the ones that don’t may contain trace amounts or more of dairy. According to a study conducted by the FDA, more than 60% of tested dark chocolate products were found to contain milk, even when milk was not listed as an ingredient. This is a big deal for vegans and folks with allergies and requires a little more research before purchasing.
Dark chocolate is celebrated for its antioxidants, which only adds to its perception as the “grownup” option. The health benefits come from the cacao bean, which is naturally high in flavonols. These multi-talented substances are believed to lower blood pressure, bad cholesterol, and the risk of heart disease. Dark chocolate contains more cacao and is generally less processed, so it’s higher in antioxidants. Milk chocolate does not contain as much cacao as dark chocolate and dairy minimizes the antioxidant properties anyway, so it does not pack the same antioxidant punch. (For the record: if you’re eating dark chocolate for the antioxidants, avoid bars with alkali in the ingredient list. This indicates that the chocolate has been produced through the “Dutch process,” a traditional cooking method that unfortunately reduces antioxidant levels.)
And that’s…pretty much it.
There are a zillion ways to prepare milk and dark chocolate, and chances are most of us would enjoy a few creations from both sides of the spectrum. We’re not so different after all.
When it’s all said and done, it really just matters what you like and what you’re in the mood for. Milk chocolate tastes better than dark chocolate when you’re craving milk chocolate. Dark chocolate tastes better than milk chocolate when you’re craving dark chocolate. Our tastebuds want what they want when they want it, and listening to those little tyrants is one of the great pleasures in life. Tastebuds truly know what’s up!
Milk chocolate will never be as elevated, complex, or fancy as dark chocolate. And no matter how premium, minimally processed, and responsibly sourced your dark chocolate is, it will never, ever, ever fulfill a craving for good old M&M’s. Choosing between the two is like choosing between buying a pint of ice cream and contributing to your 401k. The correct answer is and always should be: BOTH!
Here’s to the old-fashioned milk chocolate bars. The semi-sweet chocolate chip cookies. The crazy-expensive dark chocolate that pairs so perfectly with a glass of red. And every possible iteration in between. We have room in our hearts and pantries for all of you.