Although seen as the healthier option when it comes to chocolate, dark chocolate is still often categorised as a ‘discretionary item’ or a junk food. However, the reality is that a good quality dark chocolate is completely different to regular milk chocolate which definitely should be categorised as junk food.

The difference between the two is essentially the ratio of cocoa versus sugar. We know that sugar can have detrimental effects on our health and is best reduced as much as possible, however did you know that cocoa is one of the most nutritious foods available?

Milk chocolate usually contains around 25% cocoa with the rest being sugar, milk solids and emulsifiers. In comparison, a good quality dark chocolate can be 85% or more cocoa with as little as 10 – 15% sugar and has no milk solids or emulsifiers. A piece of 90% chocolate has only 10% sugar in it which in a lot of cases is less than the amount of sugar in bliss balls and raw treats many people use as a healthy alternative to sweet things.

One of the reasons cocoa is so good is because it is super high in antioxidants – in fact you’ll struggle to find a food that has higher levels. Anti-oxidants act as scavengers for free radicals which has protective effects against cancer and can also reduce the signs of ageing. Two types of antioxidants found in cocoa are polyphenols and flavanols and a single serve of cocoa provides more polyphenols that most other foods available. Flavanols interact with your salivary proteins and is what gives cocoa the bitter taste. They also have protective effect for the cardiovascular system, improve blood flow to the brain for increased cognitive function, as well as being anti-inflammatory. Research also shows that polyphenols can modify our microbiome and trigger the growth of good bacteria that have further anti-inflammatory effects. It has also been suggested that polyphenols have a microbial action that can kill off potential pathogenic bacteria in the gut. So they increase good bacteria and decrease bad bacteria in the gut – win win!

When it comes to micro-nutrients cocoa is just as impressive. It’s high in magnesium which is needed for a large number of biochemical reactions in the body including those for protein synthesis, muscle relaxation and energy production. It’s also a good source of copper and iron.

Cocoa also has great mood boosting effects. It contains anandamide, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with enhancing feelings of joy, bliss and happiness. It also contains phenylethylamine which has stimulating effect on our happy hormones such a serotonin and dopamine. Theobromine is another component found in cocoa which has similar antioxidiant and energy boosting capacity to caffeine however has very little effect on stimulating the nervous system. Side note: theobromine is why dogs can’t have chocolate, they don’t metabolize it well so it can build up in toxic amounts. The caffeine level in cocoa is extremely low at just 0.2% of total weight so is usually not enough to give those of us sensitive to caffeine the jitters!

So yes dark chocolate is actually good for you but to get the most benefit you want to look for the darkest possible but anything 85% and above is superior. It’s also important to keep in mind that dark chocolate is energy dense to 2 pieces is a good serving size. All of the benefits above are in relation to the study of cocoa, which is when raw cacao has been heat treated. Considering this, including raw cacao in your diet can provide even greater levels of nutritional quality.

Steph Warne is the head nutritionist at 28 by Sam Wood.