Nutrition Articles

Be Choosy about Chocolate

Not All Chocolate is Created Equal

A dessert. An antidepressant. A favorite indulgence. Since its discovery thousands of years ago, chocolate has become many things to many people. The Mayan people crushed the seeds of the chocolate (cacao) tree and mixed them with spices to make a frothy beverage, which was consumed at social events and religious ceremonies. Chocolate was woven into many aspects of their culture—it appeared in much of their artwork and was even used as a method of currency.

Today, chocolate is used to satisfy a sweet tooth more than anything else. But recent research about the health benefits of chocolate may persuade you to explore the world of chocolate a little more. The findings suggest that chocolate’s naturally occurring phytochemicals, called flavanols, may help to prevent high blood pressure, improve heart health, and increase insulin sensitivity. But all chocolate is not created equal, and not all types of chocolate offer these health benefits. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting your currency’s worth when you shop for a chocolate bar.

Manufacturing Chocolate
All chocolate originally comes from cacao (or cocoa) beans. The beans are harvested, dried and shipped to processing plants where the outer layer is removed. The stripped-down bean is then roasted and milled to produce chocolate liquor. The liquor is used to make cocoa powder for both dark and milk chocolate, chocolate mixes and chocolate syrups. Some cocoa powder is further processed to produce what’s known as Dutch cocoa powder.  “Dutch processed” or “alkalized” reduces the acidity, but this processing step reduces the beneficial flavanols by 60-90 percent.

Concentration Counts
The flavonoid content of chocolate and cocoa-related products varies greatly and labels can be tricky to decipher. The amount of flavonoid content is based on the amount of cocoa solids contained, the processing techniques used, and even the growing conditions of the beans.
  • Dark chocolate has the most flavanols, so look for a product with at least 70 percent cocoa.
  • Milk chocolate has less flavanols because less cocoa powder is used; but it does contain some. ·        
  • White chocolate is really not chocolate at all, rather it is cocoa butter (the fat). It has zero flavanols. ·        
  • Cocoa powder has more flavanols than does Dutch processed or alkalized cocoa powder.
  • Most chocolate milk is made with Dutch cocoa, since it mixes better with cold liquids; but that means much of the flavonoid content has been removed. 
Cocoa Butter is Better
During processing, cocoa butter, the natural fat of the cocoa bean, is removed. When a high-quality chocolate bar is made from this processed cocoa, the manufacturer will add cocoa butter back in to the recipe. However, commercial manufacturing giants save money and extend the shelf life of their products by adding unhealthy partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to chocolate instead of cocoa butter. These companies save money at the expense of your health. Read labels and choose a chocolate that contains cocoa butter, not partially hydrogenated oils.

All Natural
A high-quality chocolate bar is fresh and naturally tastes good. Artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives aren’t necessary unless a bar falls short of these standards. Choose a chocolate that is free of unnecessary additives for a better, healthier product.

Look for Freshness
  • While it may not be eye-appealing, there is nothing dangerous with eating chocolate that has a white or grayish film on the surface. It just means the cocoa butter has separated and risen to the surface. This is called “fat bloom.”
  • The sugar in chocolate can crystallize when exposed to rapid temperature changes and humidity. It is safe to eat, but you probably won’t enjoy the grainy texture. 
  • Chocolate maintains its freshness best if wrapped tightly and stored at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This prevents the cocoa fat from turning rancid and developing an off-taste. Store your chocolate in a dry environment away from strongly scented foods such as onion, garlic and spices. Chocolate is best if consumed within a year of production.  
Before Unwrapping
  • If you are not a chocolate lover, leave it on the shelf. There are plenty of other ways to obtain health-promoting flavonoids.
  • If you are a chocolate lover, then balance calorie intake when having this tasty treat. Select dark chocolate that provides at least 70% cocoa solids. Currently there is not an established serving size of chocolate to help you reap the cardiovascular benefits. So for now, enjoy moderate portions of dark chocolate (no more than a 1-ounce) a few days a week. Avoid the “chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered-coconut sprinkled” dark chocolate which is by no means a heart-healthy food option. ·        
  • To get more of those beneficial flavonoids, make your own chocolate milk, chocolate soy milk, hot chocolate drink, chocolate meal replacement shake or protein shake by stirring in:
    • a cocoa mix made with natural (untreated) cocoa, or    
    • natural (untreated) cocoa, plus the sweetener of your choice
  • For your individualized medical plan that incorporates chocolate…talk to your doctor or health care provider.  More research is needed to determine therapeutic recommendations, dosing, and effect of different chocolate brands.

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Member Comments

  • I always wondered what effect dutching had. Thanks.
  • Call me obsessive, but just reading this article triggered me and I am thinking about raiding an Easter basket I prepared for a gift. I won't... but it is calling out to me in a loud, overweight voice!!
  • I'm currently trying Lindt Organic Chocolate, 83% cocoa. To me, it has more of a chocolately taste than say, Hershey's Special Dark, which my husband likes. The Lindt doesn't taste bitter to me. It just leaves my mouth a little dry after eating it.
  • It's a shame for you over the Pond that soon you won't be able to get British chocolate any more, except if someone brings it over as a gift. British chocolate is SO much better than most American chocolate (not tried Xocai, sounds interesting, but Hershey's? YUK!) Having said that, Swiss and Belgian chocolate is even better then British chocolate, not sure if they will be banned for import too.
    I love dark chocolate. Lately, I've been eating an 86% cacao bar. It's so chocolately. I'm so glad I don't like milk chocolate.
  • I loved your article but one thing you did not mention is the processing of the chocolate. Cold pressed chocolate, chocolate not heated or dutched like candy chocolate is very high in antioxidants. In fact, Xocai healthy chocolate, a patented cold pressed chocolate is a high antioxidant superfood. There products are verified by Brunswick Labs and show the ORACfn and flavonoid scores. Just 3 pieces of chocolate a day can be over 80,000 ORACfn (the amount of antioxidants) Even better they are gluten free, diabetic friendly and the power square is just 33 calories a piece. Contact me if you have questions, lynette@my3sonsmo
  • I wish there were more source citations in this post, especially regarding the no-milk-with-choc
    olate recommendation. And I've seen similar warnings against milk with blueberries. In my own (admittedly limited) amount of research, though, I've found those recommendations to be a bit hasty. There simply hasn't been enough research to support such restrictions so conclusively.

    One of the best papers I've seen so far on all this can be found at https://www.ncbi.
    MC2871118/ . It's a few years old (2010), but it's fairly comprehensive and not quite as jargon-laden as most scientific reports.

    As usual, it seems the best way to eat for good nutrition is to consume a wide variety of foods in moderation.
  • Too bad, to me, chocolate tastes absolutely horrible unless there is milk added. I have tried to eat those super-expensive dark chocolate bars, and they just taste awful to me. Bitter.
    Thanks for this long overdue article.

    Actually, I like cocoa powder stirred into a cup of hot water. But then, I like black coffee, too.
  • Dang... Didn't know about the milk thing. I'd been adding some cocoa powder to cottage cheese and adding 1/2 or less packet of splenda. I thought I was being smart, great late night snack with protein and antioxidants to satisfy that chocolate craving. In the microwave, it's like warm, rich, chocolate pudding or frosting even.

    Guess the cocoa powder only goes in the oatmeal now, and it turns into a carby snack...
    What a shock to learn that the nutrients are negated when chocolate is combined with milk! Please say this isn't so...
  • CORRIE3222
    Another thing to think about when choosing chocolate is whether or not it is Fair Trade. Most of our chocolate comes from places that are using forced child labor. Look into it. You'll be astounded. Disappointed that wasn't mentioned in this article.
  • I add the unsweetened cocoa to my daily breakfast smoothie--only 3 calories a teaspoon and chocolate goes great with most fruit--pineapple, strawberries, bananas.
  • Urgh, that may all be well and good, but chocolate is an indulgence for me, a little sweet treat, and I can't stand dark chocolate except as an ingredient in my baking.

    So, I'll stick to a great milk choc, skip the antioxidants, and just let myself enjoy my chocolate. My favorite (since I'm in Germany at the moment, there's so many great choices) either Ritter Sport Alpenmilch or, if I'm feeling especially like indulging, a piece of (I think it's Cailler) Rayon honey and milk chocolate.
    Our family have been consuming Xocai Healthy Chocolate since February of 2009! Best decision we have EVER made! Within a few months, our daughter no longer gets her migraine headaches, my arthritis in my knees have disappeared, my husband has come off 3 meds (acid reflux, blood pressure & cholesterol) and I have lost 25 lbs. I love this company and their products - taking chocolate back to being a functional food is absolutely brilliant! Anyone and everyone can benefit from flooding their bodies with these extraordinary antioxidants in this decadently delicious form! It slows degeneration and aging, addresses inflammation and is a powerhouse for weight loss - not to mention feeling great energy, moods and enhanced athletic performance! Check out www.chocolate4you

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

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