Why bitter is better

Around the holidays, I recommend you go ahead and have a little dark chocolate. And the darker the better.

Now, you may think you won’t like dark chocolate because it does not have as much sugar and milk as “milk chocolate.” But you may be surprised. A new study conducted in Hershey, PA of all places, found that even self-professed milk chocolate lovers enjoy dark chocolate, once they give it a chance.

I’ll tell you more about that study in a moment, but first some background on why bitter is better…

Chocolate comes from cacao beans (Theobroma cacao). These beans contain polyphenolic compounds that provide many health benefits. For example, we know polyphenols reduce inflammation. In fact, last month I told you about a study that showed how a polyphenol in dark chocolate helps improve muscle function in patients with heart disease and with diabetes. Polyphenols also act as antioxidants that seek and destroy harmful free radicals. And they even help regulate your immune system.

Unfortunately, cacao beans taste bitter. And chocolate made with 100 percent cacao tastes bitter too.

To get rid of the bitterness, manufacturers ferment or roast the beans. (They do the same thing to coffee beans and teas as well.) This process reduces the beans’ polyphenolic content. But it also reduces their health benefits as well.

Without a doubt, bitter is better when it comes to chocolate. So, if you’re a self-professed milk chocolate lover, it’s time to give dark chocolate a chance. You may even like it more than you think you will.

And that’s where the Hershey, PA study comes in…

For this study, scientists at Pennsylvania State University Medical Center wanted to determine the level of bitterness at which the “average consumer” rejects dark chocolate. Do they reject chocolate with 80 percent cacao? Or is it much lower?

The researchers enrolled 99 participants in the study. At the outset, about half the participants said they preferred sweeter, milk chocolate. And the other half said they preferred darker, “semi-sweet” chocolate. (Indeed, science bears this out. In fact, we know that some people have highly sensitive taste buds. And they can detect bitterness far more strongly in foods than people can with less sensitive taste buds.)

The researchers randomly gave out five different chocolate samples. The samples contained 35 percent, 50 percent, 65 percent, 80 percent, or 100 percent natural cocoa powder. Then, they recorded the participants’ responses.

Overall, more women than men preferred darker chocolate. About 20 percent of the total group accepted the 100 percent cocoa powder. This makes sense, as this powder tastes the most bitter. In fact, it has no sweetness to it at all.

About 20 percent of group also accepted the 80 percent cocoa powder samples. But here’s the interesting part…

It didn’t make a difference whether they were self-professed milk chocolate lovers or dark chocolate lovers. About the same number of people who said they preferred milk chocolate as those who said they preferred dark chocolate accepted the highly bitter, 80 percent cocoa powder sample.

So therein lies the lesson.

Even if you think you’re a milk chocolate lover, you can probably tolerate a more bitter chocolate…something with at least 65 to 80 percent cacao. If you already like the taste of dark chocolate, try some with 100 percent cacao and see what you think.

Just don’t let your taste “preferences” prejudice you. Since this study clearly shows that milk chocolate lovers are just as likely to tolerate dark chocolate as those who think they prefer dark chocolate.

Bottom line?

Try dark chocolate. And the darker, the better. Chances are you will like it–and get better health benefits to boot.


1. “Tolerance for high flavanol cocoa powder in semisweet chocolate,” Nutrients 2013; 5(6): 2258-2267