melted chocolate in bowl with whisk

When a sweet craving strikes, chances are that you, like many other people, reach for a piece of milk chocolate or dark chocolate. While both dominate the sweet and sugary market, we often take some of the facts for granted. For one, milk chocolate has a rich history but a much lower nutritional value compared with dark chocolate. Caffeine content, storage, and cooking uses are also helpful to know. Learn more about all things chocolate and the best ways you can incorporate this sweet treat into a balanced diet.

Defining Chocolate and Understanding Its History 

While the world of the manufactured candies you see around Halloween and Easter may seem relatively new, chocolate itself is said to be about 4,000 years old, per History.com.

Made from cacao beans, chocolate is originally from Central America, where Theobroma cacao trees thrived in the tropical climate.

Centuries later, Spanish colonizers learned of the prized crop and took it back with them to Europe. The treat eventually made the rounds in Spain, France, and then Britain.

It even gained a reputation for being healthy, thanks to studies of indigenous people who consumed chocolate and were found to have lower incidences of cardiovascular disease, notes the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Still, the chocolate of centuries past was nothing like the sugary treats you may find at the store today. The ancient civilizations of Central America were said to have used cacao beans to make a chocolate drink using a combination of water, honey, and spices.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first chocolate bar was created in Britain.

Eventually, now-famous companies called their chocolate goods by the brand names, such as Hershey’s and Mars. Chocolate consumption spiked at the turn of the 20th century.

It’s one of the first treats bought for holidays and special occasions, though chocolate is widely available to satisfy sweet cravings year-round.

How Chocolate and Dark Chocolate Are Made

All chocolate comes from cacao beans from the Theobroma cacao tree. Chocolate makers harvest pods from the trees, scoop the beans out of the pods, and then ferment and dry those beans. Next, they roast and grind the beans. To create chocolate bars, makers convert this resulting substance into a liquor (nope, not alcohol) then sweeten it, grind it again, and pour it into their desired mold to solidify, according to the Princeton Institute for Chocolate Studies.

Cocoa powder is the result of ground cacao beans.

The process varies slightly during the liquid phase depending on whether you’re making milk chocolate or dark chocolate. Regular chocolate — what is often called milk chocolate — is made with a combination of cocoa liquor, powdered milk, and sugar.

The average milk chocolate sold in the United States has at least 10 percent cocoa content.

Dark chocolate consists of some of the same ingredients but in different amounts. Milk powder is not used to make dark chocolate. Most dark chocolate has a cocoa content between 35 and 85 percent.

The higher the percentage of cocoa, the stronger the taste. Some people find the darkest of chocolate to have a bitter taste, while others appreciate its lower sugar content.

Mass-produced chocolates tend to have other ingredients added during the liquefying phase. Some examples include cocoa butter, soy, and other bulking ingredients that can help drive down costs.

Nutrition Facts for White, Milk, and Dark Chocolate

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a 1-ounce (oz) serving of white chocolate has 153 calories and 9 grams (g) of fat.

It also has 17 g of carbohydrates, all of which are from sugar, and 56 milligrams (mg) of calcium. Despite its name, white chocolate isn’t a typical cocoa-derived substance. In fact, it doesn’t contain cocoa at all, so it’s technically not chocolate.

The USDA estimates that 1 oz of milk chocolate contains 153 calories and 8 g of fat.

The same serving also has 17 g of carbs. Due to its milk content, milk chocolate has slightly more calcium (54 mg) than dark chocolate (though neither is a significant source of this nutrient), and milk chocolate contains 0.7 mg of iron.

Dark chocolate is touted as the healthiest of the chocolates — the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines even allows for it, in moderation, as a healthy after-dinner treat. It’s estimated that a 1 oz serving of 70 to 85 percent dark chocolate has around 170 calories, 12 g of fat, and 2 g of protein.

It also has 7 g of sugar and 3 g of fiber. The same serving size has 13 g of carbohydrates.

How Much Caffeine Is in Chocolate Exactly?

While you might normally turn to coffee, tea, or soda for a caffeine fix, know that chocolate also has caffeine. This is all thanks to naturally caffeinated cocoa beans.

While chocolate offers significantly less caffeine than the 96 mg in the average 8-oz cup of coffee, it will nonetheless increase your daily caffeine intake, notes Mayo Clinic.

A 1.5 oz portion of milk chocolate may have about 9 mg of caffeine, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Dark chocolate, due to its higher cocoa bean content, is likely to have more caffeine than its milk or white counterparts. Keep this in mind as you indulge in other caffeinated drinks and foods throughout the day as it can add up quickly. Certain medications, such as aspirin, may also contain added caffeine.