Dark chocolate is a snack you’re routinely told to enjoy. Dark chocolate contains stearic acid, a saturated fat that doesn’t raise cholesterol, antioxidants called polyphenols associated with decreasing the risk of coronary artery disease (heart disease), as well as magnesium, copper, zinc and iron. Consumption of very dark chocolate has been credited with lowering levels of LDL, lowering blood pressure, boosting mood and reducing the risk of blood clots. These health findings depend on how much chocolate you eat, the level or percentage of cacao in the chocolate, and other health variables. A small serving typically has less than 10 mgs of caffeine. The higher the percent of cacao (derived from cocoa butter) on the label, the lower the percentage of sugar, and the more health benefits the chocolate offers. Chocolate with higher percentages of cacao will typically taste bitterer, since there’s less sugar.
But, if you happen to be allergic to milk, you may be unaware that dark chocolate can still contain dairy milk as an ingredient. This issue recently came to the attention of the FDA, based on consumer allergic reaction reports. Currently, U.S. law requires manufacturers to label food products that may contain major allergens (milk is considered one). You’ve more than likely seen a food recall because of “undeclared allergens or ingredients considered highly allergic.” Undeclared milk and nuts are prominent reasons for food recalls. Milk is notoriously undeclared in dark chocolate.
The FDA decided to randomly test about 100 dark chocolate bars for the presence of dairy milk as an ingredient. The bars came from all over the United States and were selected as unique samples in terms of their product niche or manufacturer. It became evident early on in the assessment process that consumers can’t tell if milk is an ingredient in the average bar of dark chocolate based on the ingredient label. Of 94 bars tested, only six listed milk on the label. Of the 88 bars that did not list milk on the label, nearly 51 of them contained milk. Of the 100 bars tested, 61 contained milk.
The FDA noted that if the label made any reference to milk (may contain milk or dairy or may have been made in a plant that processes milk or dairy), it likely contained milk. So consumers need to assume the bar has milk if they see even a mild reference. It can get a bit confusing if the bar is labeled dairy free or vegan but also has one of these milk references (not uncommon). Again, the FDA suggests erring on the side of caution and avoiding the bar if you have a milk allergy.
The FDA also maintains that consumers should assume milk is present in most dark chocolate bars. You can probably do some diligent detective work and find trustworthy companies, but that burden is on you, the consumer with the milk allergy (or the person who truly wants a pure vegan bar). Remember that milk includes “cream, milk fat, and sodium caseinate.” Newer regulations that will be mandated in the Preventive Controls for Human Food rule likely to pass in the coming fall will require companies to further minimize the risk of allergens showing up in foods that are not properly labeled.
Just remember that dark chocolate, despite its health claims, has calories and a small serving is considered a healthy treat.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”