Have you ever wondered why some cocoa powders are light-brown, and others are dark brown? Before I became interested in how food manufacturers process and alter our food, I assumed that darker cocoa was richer and contained more minerals and flavanols than its lighter coloured counterpart.

Turns out, I was wrong!

There are two types of cocoa powders available on store shelves – Dutch-processed cocoa powder (sometimes called alkalized cocoa or treated with alkali) and natural cocoa powder.

Natural cocoa powder is just what the name implies, natural. It is cocoa powder in its pure, unaltered form. It’s characterized by a light brown color, and it has a low pH that sits around 5, which makes it bitter. Natural cocoa powder is one of the richest sources of dietary flavanols, plant compounds that act as antioxidants and have a beneficial impact on cardiovascular health. If  you consume cocoa powder because of the health benefits, choose a natural cocoa powder.


Dutch-processed cocoa was invented almost 200 years ago by a Dutch chemist named Van Houten. He wanted to make cocoa less bitter so more people would like it. To this day, food manufacturers still use this process to make cocoa more appealing to customers and boost their profits. The Dutch process involves adding sodium carbonate to the cocoa powder to raise the pH, which makes the cocoa less bitter. It also alters the cocoa powder in other ways:


  • The color changes from a light brown to a dark brown.
  • The flavonols, those beneficial compounds I said acted as antioxidants, are destroyed in the process (bye-bye health benefits!).
  • The cocoa powder itself becomes soluble, making it easier to use in beverages or other applications.


The  degree to which food manufacturers alkalize cocoa affects the final product’s  flavanol content:

  • Lightly alkalized cocoa retains up to 40% of its flavonols.
  • Heavily alkalized cocoa retains 22% of its flavonols.

The problem is, there is no way of knowing if a cocoa powder was lightly or heavily alkalized because food manufacturers are not required to disclose it on the label.

If you prefer a smoother chocolate taste (less bitterness), then dutch-processed cocoa is what you’re looking for. You can get plenty of antioxidants from other whole-foods such as berries and broccoli sprouts





K Hollenberg N. Vascular action of cocoa flavanols in humans: the roots of the story. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol (2006) 47(Suppl 2):S99–102; discussion S119–21.10.1097/00005344-200606001-00002


Miller K.B., Hurst W.J., Payne M.J., Stuart D.A., Apgar J., Sweigart D.S., Ou B. Impact on alkalization on the antioxidant and flavanol content of commercial cocoa powders. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2008;56:8527–8533. doi: 10.1021/jf801670p.


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