Many of us think of chocolate purely as a dessert, something inherently unhealthy.
Often it’s a sort of self-administered reward for finishing stereotypically healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, meats and grains.
Nonetheless, not all forms of chocolate are bad for you. Like with any food, the health value depends on ingredients, processing and moderation. There’s a huge difference between eating a Snicker’s bar every day versus a small, thin square of dark chocolate.
The Chocolate Health Spectrum: From Raw Cacao to Candy
Food products are typically healthier when they are closer to their natural state, and chocolate is no exception. Before manufacturers transform it into the bars and squares we know and love, chocolate begins as seeds from the cacao tree.
This plant is rich with nutrients that provide minerals such as iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium. Cacao also contains polyphenols, chemicals that protect against the development of serious diseases, including cancer and heart conditions.
According to nutritionist Kim Perez, there is a sort of hierarchy of healthiness when it comes to chocolate.
- raw cacao powder or nibs (cold-pressed, unroasted cacao beans)
- unsweetened cocoa powder (raw cacao that has been roasted)
- dark chocolate, ideally 70% or higher (tends to have less carbs, sugar and fat than milk chocolate)
- dark chocolate significantly below 70%
- milk chocolate bars and candy
- chocolate ice cream
The more cacao is processed, the more it loses its natural nutrients. According to Jennifer Kaplan, an author and professor at the Culinary Institute of America, certain types of chocolate manufacturing can drain cacao of fiber, protein and water. Heavily processed brands tend to include unhealthy additives such as brown rice syrup and artificial sweeteners.
One of the reasons milk chocolate is less healthy, Kaplan said, is because it typically involves a Dutch method of processing that uses alkalizing agents. These ingredients make the flavor and color of chocolate more appealing to some consumers. The problem is this quality comes at the cost of destroying antioxidants, compounds that fortify human cells.
Check the Labels and Nutrition Facts
When brands care about making relatively healthy chocolates that are ethically produced, they usually invest in earning at least one of the following labels and certifications:
If you don’t see any of these labels, check the nutrition facts panel on the back of the product. A healthy brand of dark chocolate should not have an alarming amount of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol or sugar. A dark chocolate Hershey Bar, for example, has about 20 grams of sugar, while many dark chocolate brands contain less than 10 grams.
Infusing Chocolate With Healthy Foods and Ingredients
Sometimes what is mixed into a piece of chocolate is as important as the chocolate itself. Eating chocolate with almonds, for instance, means more nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants and protein. It’s also common for chocolate to include bits of fruit.
There are even types of chocolate with ingredients that can alleviate pain and discomfort. Take Chica Chocolate, which is infused with herbs that help people cope with periods. There are also brands of chocolate that contain CBD to reduce anxiety.
All in Moderation
We recommend eating 70%+ dark chocolate in moderation. As for milk chocolate, enjoy it as an occasional treat.
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