Tag Archives: bitterness

Bitterness and Health of Dark Chocolate: Subtle Backstories Revealed


“Ooooohhh, what’s this?  Free chocolate?!”

So began an informal chocolate tasting with 17 curious volunteers.  Each individual completed a survey that both collected and tested their knowledge of 8 anonymized chocolate samples.  At the end of the survey, respondents selected their favorite sample and attempted to match each one with its wrapper.

While more data was collected than ultimately analyzed, 2 themes cropped up relatively quickly that potentially revealed both underlying historical and contemporary backstories.  The first theme is the participants’ preference to sweet chocolate over dark chocolate, which can be explained by the historical dubious business practices of the Big Chocolate firms as opposed to the more simple explanation that all humans naturally prefer the taste of sweetness.  The second theme consists of the participants’ conflicting knowledge about the extent of dark chocolate’s health benefits.


Planning the questionnaire at first proved challenging.  What question(s) would the survey attempt to answer?  Who would participate?  What kinds or brands of chocolate would be included?  Ultimately, it was decided to ask employees at a local Boston start-up company to participate in the survey as this particular office is known for its enthusiasm and participation in events.

The survey had two sections: pre-tasting and post-tasting.  The pre-tasting section focused primarily on the participants’ chocolate consumption (what determines the purchase of chocolate, how much chocolate is consumed, who receives purchased chocolate, what determines the purchase of a particular chocolate brand over others, etc.) with two preparatory questions meant to engage partakers with their chocolate.  The post-tasting section requested subjects to identify their personal favorite chocolate sample and to match all samples with their packaging.

Chocolate Samples
The chocolates sampled by the volunteers. All are advertised on the wrappers as either “dark” or “bitter.”  However, what the participants did not know is that the Hershey’s and Cadbury brands have such low cacao percentages, they are widely considered milk chocolates instead.  Brands were chosen based on their collective ability to compare sweetness, certifications, price, and brand recognition.  All samples were also easy to purchase and obtain.
To keep participants from using indicators on the actual samples, all brand names and symbols were scraped off with a knife beforehand.  This was the most time-consuming aspect of the entire survey setup.

Neither section was designed to answer any particular predetermined question.  Instead, the resulting analysis was written based on the data collected and the trends it illustrated.  Only one of the biographical data sets was used for the analysis: city and country of birth.  For the reader’s reference, attached is the blank form all contributors received.


The first overall theme from the results and sampling was that the majority of participants (9 of the 15 who responded to the specific prompt) preferred the sweet samples (Hershey’s or Cadbury) to the bitter/darker ones.  One volunteer jokingly referred to the 90% Lindt Supreme Dark chocolate sample as being “offensive” to her taste buds.  This is not surprising as most people exhibit a preference for sweetness.

As described by David Benton, “The attraction of chocolate lies in its taste.  The combination of sweetness and fat approaches the ideal hedonic combination.”  Benton further explains that within experimentation, “when the palatability of combinations of fat and sugar were compared, the optimal combination was found to be 7.6% sugar with cream containing 24.7% fat” and that “the fat content of chocolate is close to this ideal figure, although the sugar content of chocolate is greater” (Benton, 2004).  However, as this Slate article points out, humans “are the descendants of wandering hunter-gatherers with a powerful ability to learn from experience: Like them, we can train our palates and brains to extract some pleasure from almost any kind of food.”  For example, the Aymara of Peru possess genes that predispose them to despise bitterness, yet “their diets depended on a highly bitter strain of potatoes.  So they liked them.”  Ultimately, necessity and culture defeated their genetic predisposition (McQuaid, 2015).

Sidney Mintz also expresses his doubts that a human preference for sugar (a major ingredient in almost all chocolate) lead to the proliferation of sugar around the globe: “That human beings like the taste of sweetness does not explain why some eat immense quantities of sweet foods and others hardly any… There is nothing ‘natural’ or inevitable about these ‘processes’ [of adopting flavor preferences]; they have no inbuilt dynamic of their own” (Mintz, 1986).  Applying this logic to the survey volunteers, it can be suggested that the preference to Hershey’s and Cadbury is due to a lack of necessity and cultural pressure to enjoy bitter chocolate.  This is not difficult to imagine through the lens of Big Chocolate’s business model and ethics.

Chocolate’s history has undergone several drastic changes.  Where it was once solely available to Mesoamericans in Pre-Columbian times, it moved to Europe as a status symbol drunk by elites and eventually became a widely available treat in multiple cultures across the globe.  How this happened is a tale of several factors that include benign technological advances as well as pervasive slave labor.  Much, if not all, the cacao used for chocolate during the Industrial Revolution was harvested by slaves in the New World as “enslaved people were more valuable than indentured because their labor was purchased for life rather than for a limited period of years and the children of enslaved women were declared slaves at birth” (Higman, 2011).  Even after abolition, slave labor persisted in various forms such as indentured labor and debt servitude.  When journalists confronted the Cadbury company in the early 1900s with evidence that they were purchasing cacao from plantations utilizing slave labor, Cadbury did very little to change the status quo, instead hiring its own agent to investigate African plantation practices four years after first hearing rumors of slave labor in Africa.  In four years, the Cadbury company had “accomplished nothing for the slaves who produced the cocoa beans” (Satre, 2005).

By lowering the cost of labor, companies are able to save on production costs and lower the price for consumers, allowing their chocolate to become more widely available on the global market.  As seen by the Hershey’s and Cadbury wrappers used in the survey, neither has fair trade certifications that indicate better ethical business practices compared to their contemporary peers who attempt to solely purchase cacao from farmers and farming cooperatives ensuring child-free labor practices (among other things).  As seen in the figure below, Cadbury Royal Dark and Hershey’s Special Dark are at least 40% cheaper per ounce than their fair trade competitors (Endangered, Trader Joe’s, and Green & Black’s).

Chocolate Prices
Price per ounce of the 8 chocolate samples.

Creating a wider consumer audience was also accomplished with clever business tactics.  For example, Mars’ Milky Way was a creation specifically designed to skimp on expensive quality chocolate but still be considered tasty to consumers.  Forrest Mars recounted this about his father and the Milky Way bar: “He has a candy bar.  And it’s a chocolate malted drink.  He put some caramel on top of it, and some chocolate around it – not very good chocolate, he was buying cheap chocolate – but that damn thing sold.  No advertising.”  The Milky Way was strikingly different from its competitors because the malt-flavored nougat was the bar’s main ingredient.  It made the bar “much bigger, tasted just as chocolatey, but cost much less to produce.”  Forrest Mars bragged, “People walked up to the candy counter and they’d see this flat little Hershey bar for a nickel and right next to it a giant Milky Way.  Guess which one they’d pick?” (Brenner, 2000).

Due to competitive business practices between the various Big Chocolate companies, the American market is saturated with cheap chocolate.  There is also little incentive to purchase chocolate for cultural reasons, the other would-be defender of bitter flavors.  Unfortunately, American society has a less significant cultural history (comparatively speaking) associated with chocolate as “the institution of the chocolate or coffee-house seems never to have crossed the Atlantic to England’s North American colonies.”  Coffee and chocolate houses were hotbeds of sedition in England where men would drink chocolate or coffee and politically foment.  However, “parliamentary democracy did not extend to the colonies, and Americans were isolated from the give-and-take and political deals that were the daily fare of enfranchised Englishmen in [chocolate and coffee] establishments… The colonial well-to-do took their chocolate, but at home,” away from society at large (Coe & Coe, 2013).  This can be seen reflected in the fact that Americans consume less chocolate per person per year (9.5 pounds) than several European countries (UK = 16.3 pounds, Switzerland = 19.8 pounds, Germany = 17.4 pounds, and the Netherlands = 10.4 pounds) (McCarthy, 2015).

At this point, it should be noted that of the 9 participants who preferred the Hershey’s and Cadbury samples, 8 were born in the United States and 1 in Asia (which exhibits different chocolate consumption habits and preferences than in the West) (Allen, 2010).  All European-born participants favored the more bitter chocolates.  Unfortunately, only 15 individuals completed this section of the form, which does not make the survey particularly scientifically or statistically significant.  In future, it would be far more interesting to gather a larger number of participants.


A far lesser but generally accepted theme among the participants was the perception of dark chocolate’s health benefits.  This was displayed during one particular key moment.  A few individuals expressed slight hesitation in joining the sampling due to dieting concerns.  “It’s not my cheat day,” one said of his regimen.  “Oh, don’t worry,” another participant exclaimed, “it’s all dark chocolate, so it’s healthy.”  On the one hand, the vacillating participants had a sense that eating dark chocolate broke their diet.  But then there were colleagues purporting that dark chocolate was healthy enough to break his diet. That was all that seemed necessary for the individual to become a volunteer and join the sampling party with his colleagues.

Unfortunately, the health benefits of chocolate have been vastly sensationalized as contemporary popular “claims confer on chocolate the properties of being a stimulant, relaxant, euphoriant, aphrodisiac, tonic, and antidepressant” (Bisson et al., 2013).  The woman in the video below is a prime example.

However, for every study suggesting positive benefits, there is a study to suggest that no significant effect is present at all.  For example, one study found that cocoa lowered blood pressure in patients with coronary artery disease, but then “a double-blind placebo trial using flavanol-rich cocoa beverages with natural or added theobromine, concluded that although after 2 [hours] of consumption the central systolic [blood pressure] was significantly lowered by the theobromine-added beverage, the [24-hour] ambulatory or central [blood pressure] was not affected.”  Consumers could theoretically just consume theobromine (a compound found in cacao) in chocolate every 2 hours, but that would mean ingesting a significant amount of calories, which provides its own set of health consequences.  David Benton summarizes this phenomenon succinctly:

“Chocolate contains a range of compounds… These include caffeine, phenylethylamine, magnesium, and anandamide.  A common reason why they are unlikely to have any significant impact is that with any likely consumption of chocolate they are certain to be provided in a dose that is inactive.  For example, to consume the minimal active dose of 1g of phenylethalmine one would need to rapidly eat 15kg of chocolate.  In addition, to prevent its breakdown by the liver the taking of a monoamine oxidase inhibitor is to be recommended… [O]ne would need to consume 25kg of chocolate to obtain a psychoactive dose of anandamide” (2004).

However, participants and readers should not be discouraged.  While much of dark chocolate’s health benefits are not firmly established, it is true “that dark chocolate ‘does no harm,’ to use the Hippocratic phrase – at least to humans… Dark chocolate does not cause diabetes, dental caries, or acne, or produce headaches, as sometimes has been alleged” (Coe & Coe, 2007).


Participants in a novel chocolate tasting experience reinforced historical and contemporary trends prevalent in the chocolate industry.  These included the two themes of preferring sweet chocolate to dark chocolate and contradictory notions of dark chocolate’s health benefits.  The first theme revealed Big Chocolate’s history in slavery and dubious business practices as a potential explanation to consumers’ preference of sweet chocolate as opposed to the more obvious reason that humans naturally prefer the taste of sweetness.  The second theme featured the contradictory health notions associated with dark chocolate as described by participants’ hesitation to join the chocolate sampling.  To further improve the results, more participants could be used to capture more statistically significant data to make the analysis more robust.


Allen, Lawrence. (2010). Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallet of China’s Consumers. New York: American Management Association.

Benton, David. (2004). “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.” Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Bisson, Jean-Francois, et al. (2013). “Clinical Benefits of Cocoa: An Overview.” Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. New York: Humana Press.

Brenner, Joel. (2000). The Emperor of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. New York: Broadway Books.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. (2007). The True History of Chocolate (3rd ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson.

Higman, B.W. (2011). A Concise History of the Caribbean. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, Niall. (2015). “The World’s Biggest Chocolate Consumers [Infographic].” Forbes. Retrieved May 9, 2018 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2015/07/22/the-worlds-biggest-chocolate-consumers-infographic/#6bb1038f4484.

McQuaid, John. (2015). “Why Do We Like Bitter Foods?” Slate. Retrieved May 9, 2018 from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/01/why_do_we_like_bitter_foods.html.

Mintz, Sidney W. (1986).  Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

Satre, Lowell J. (2005). Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.


*** Many thanks to all the volunteers who sat down after a long day of work to eat chocolate and share their thoughtful opinions.