What is the healthiest chocolate? How milk, dark and white stack up.

Milk chocolate is the public’s preferred chocolate, a 2021 Mashed survey found, followed by dark chocolate. Only 11% of voters said they preferred white chocolate – a hotly contested member of the chocolate family. Technically, white chocolate is made of cocoa butter and lacks the cocoa nibs that other chocolates are made of.

But from a nutritional standpoint, which option reigns king? Here’s what a registered dietitian told USA TODAY about health and safety when it comes to chocolate.

What is the healthiest kind of chocolate?

Dark chocolate is the healthiest kind of chocolate, according to registered dietitian Danielle Crumble Smith. It’s packed with antioxidants and contains minerals like iron, magnesium and phosphorus. It’s also high in fiber and contains flavonoids, a naturally occurring compound, often known as phytonutrients, Crumble Smith explains. These antioxidants help to lower inflammation, blood pressure and cholesterol levels and protect from cardiovascular disease.

Chocolate is made from cacao beans, which are rich in antioxidants. The more cacao chocolate is made of, the darker it is and the more antioxidants there are generally, Crumble Smith says. Chocolate is often categorized with a percentage on the label – 70% cacao or higher is the healthiest option.

“You’re going to have higher amounts of antioxidants, of flavonoids, of fiber,” she says. “And you’re also going to have lower amounts of sugar, so for somebody with diabetes or insulin resistance who really wants to monitor sugar intake, then dark chocolate is definitely going to be the better option.”

However, according to a Consumer Reports investigation, some dark chocolate contains “concerning levels” of lead or cadmium. The two heavy metals are linked to health issues like immune system suppression, reproductive issues and hypertension. For children and pregnant people, heavy metal exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, causing developmental delays and learning and behavior problems.

Popular brands like Hershey’s, Trader Joe’s, Lindt, Lily’s, Godiva, Dove and Hu are among the products high in cadmium and lead, according to Consumer Reports.

“It’s actually milk chocolate that ends up being safer in that regard, and that’s just because with milk chocolate you have less of the actual cocoa solids because of the added milk, because of the added sugar, because of the added fat,” Crumble Smith says.

Milk chocolate has more of that traditional creamy, sweet chocolate taste than the more bitter dark chocolate, but it’s because processed cocoa has more sugar and fewer antioxidants.

If you want to get the health benefits of dark chocolate without the heavy metal exposure, Crumble Smith recommends researching the company and brand to make sure the chocolate has been third-party tested.

More on the findings: How Consumer Reports found elevated metal levels in chocolate

Which chocolate has lead and cadmium?

Here are the ones Consumer Reports says contain more than the state of California’s maximum allowable dose levels of lead and cadmium.

High in cadmium:

  • Beyond Good Organic Pure Dark Chocolate 70% Cocoa

  • Beyond Good Organic Pure Dark Chocolate 80% Cocoa

  • Equal Exchange Organic Extra Dark Chocolate 80% Cacao

  • Lindt Excellence Dark Chocolate 70% Cocoa

  • Scharffen Berger Extra Dark Chocolate 82% Cacao

  • Alter Ego Organic Dark Chocolate Classic Blackout 85% Cacao

  • Pascha Organic Very Dark Chocolate 85% Cacao

  • Dove Promises Deeper Dark Chocolate 70% Cacao

High in lead:

  • Tony’s Chocolonely Dark Chocolate 70% Cocoa

  • Lily’s Extra Dark Chocolate 70% Cocoa

  • Godiva Signature Dark Chocolate 72% Cacao

  • Chocolove Strong Dark Chocolate 70% Cocoa

  • Lindt Excellence Dark Chocolate 85% Cocoa

  • Endangered Species Bold + Silky Dark Chocolate 72% Cocoa

  • Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate 72% Cacao

  • Hu Organic Simple Dark Chocolate 70% Cacao

  • Chocolove Extreme Dark Chocolate 88% Cocoa

  • Hershey’s Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate

High in both:

  • Theo Organic Pure Dark 70% Cocoa

  • Trader Joe’s The Dark Chocolate Lover’s Chocolate 85% Cacao

  • Theo Organic Extra Dark Pure Dark Chocolate 85% Cocoa

  • Lily’s Extremely Dark Chocolate 85% Cocoa

  • Green and Black’s Organic Dark Chocolate 70% Cacao

Is chocolate healthy?

It can be, especially if you’re choosing a dark chocolate option that has more antioxidants and minerals.

Consuming 85% cocoa dark chocolate also has a prebiotic effect and the potential to improve mood, a 2022 study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry found.

Incorporating dark chocolate into your diet on a moderate basis can be a healthy way to add flavor and nutrients. Crumble Smith recommends adding it to oatmeal, homemade trail mix, Greek yogurt and other meals with fat and protein components.

“You’re getting that sweet while also getting something with protein – that’s going to help slow that digestion if you are having a chocolate that is higher in sugar, but also just truly satisfy your appetite,” Crumble Smith says.

Here are a couple of dietitian-backed recommendations for adding in chocolate:

  • Keep it in context: You won’t reap the antioxidant benefits of dark chocolate if you're filling the rest of your diet with food that's not nutritious.

  • Support chocolate with a healthy meal: Reaching for chocolate to satisfy hunger won’t leave you feeling satiated for long. Crumble Smith recommends filling up with protein and fiber first before you reach for chocolate.

  • Pay attention to cravings: “Cravings give us information about what our body needs,” Crumble Smith says. “Evaluate, ‘do I start to crave sweets at the same time every day? Am I actually tired or did I not have very much at lunch? Why am I feeling this way?”

  • Remember chocolate has caffeine: It’s certainly not as much as a cup of coffee (which has about 100 milligrams of caffeine), but an ounce of chocolate still does have about 12 milligrams of caffeine, according to the USDA. Keep that in mind if you have a sensitivity or are eating it as a late-night treat.

Discover more health tips for your daily diet:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is the healthiest chocolate? A dietitian weighs in with tips.