Sarena-Rae Santos is a contributing writer.
Chocolate－most feel like they can’t live without it!
Is it good or bad? There’s quite some controversy surrounding this topic. Some say chocolate is good because it contains antioxidants, flavonols, and other beneficial properties. Others say it’s terrible because of its caffeine content and other constituents.
What is Chocolate?
Globally, over 4.5 million tons of cocoa beans are consumed annually (1)－no wonder this is such a hot topic! Chocolate is prepared from the fruit of the Theobroma cacao, a tropical tree meaning “food of the gods” in Greek (2). Theobroma cacao trees are native to the Amazon and Orinoco river basins in South America. With the growing popularity of chocolate, established plantations have expanded to other regions, such as West Africa and South and Southeast Asia. Today, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Brazil account for 79 percent of the world’s production (3).
Dark, milk and white chocolate are three leading varieties of chocolate.
Dark chocolate will be the primary focus of this piece. Dark chocolate contains 50-90% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar (4). There are two types of dark chocolate; both are made as “eating chocolate” and formed into candy. First up, conventional chocolates have a relatively low percentage of cacao (they usually don’t list how much on the label). Non-organic and non-fair-trade varieties fit here, too, which are often processed with solvents and at high temperatures. Some even contain milk derivatives.
For the first type, there are a lot of steps in the development process: crushing, mashing, heating, and more. Unfortunately, this processing decreases nutrients (5) and increases lead and cadmium levels (6). Often, soy or sunflower lecithin is added (likely genetically modified) for emulsification purposes, and the cocoa powder is treated with alkaline.
Typically, emulsifiers are added to reduce the chocolate-making process. Chocolate needs to be conched or stirred continuously for days to emulsify and take on a smooth texture properly. They can skip that process if they add a synthetic emulsifier like soy or sunflower lecithin. It’s cheaper, but it’s also an unhealthy additive.
For these reasons, the first type of chocolate is probably best avoided.
The second type is organic, fair-trade, high cacao percentage (70% or higher). I recommend this, and you’ll learn why in this piece’s Does Chocolate Really Have Health Benefits section.
Milk chocolate contains anywhere from 10-50% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, milk in some form, and sugar (4). Milk chocolate is formulated by substituting whole milk solids for a fragment of the chocolate liquor used in the production of sweet chocolate. Typically, milk chocolate contains at least 10 percent chocolate liquor and 12 percent whole milk solids (7). Milk chocolate is not associated with health benefits since it’s such a minuscule amount of cocoa and ridiculous amounts of added sugar (8).
Like milk chocolate, white chocolate doesn’t have an association with health benefits (some people don’t even consider it real chocolate). Unlike dark or milk chocolate, white chocolate doesn’t contain cocoa solids, the element of the cacao fruit that provides other chocolate varieties with its signature brown color (9). White chocolate is made with cocoa butter, sugar, and milk, making it high in saturated fat (10).
Likely, we can all agree that mainstream chocolate isn’t what you should be grabbing for due to loads of sugar and additives. Hopefully, no one will argue that eating a Hershey bar is good for you. Actually, come to think of it, some dieticians have gained momentum for claiming more ridiculous things, like that a donut is better for you than a potato. Or my ultimate favorite－MSGs are good for you. I call this gaslighting.
An article published in 2021, 8 Healthy (and Delicious) Chocolate Bars That Dietitians Eat, is a prime example of gaslighting. This article features eight dark chocolate bars, some with concerning ingredients, yet is worded as if dieticians recommend them. In the article, they mention:
Endorfin Foods Turkish Coffee 60 Percent Cacao Chocolate Bar
Organic fair-trade cacao, organic fair-trade coconut sugar, organic fair-trade caramelized coconut, organic fair-trade cacao butter, organic fair-trade coffee, and organic cardamom.
My Overall Rating: 9/10 great ingredients, everything is organic, all but one ingredient is fair trade, and they’re using coconut sugar instead of regular sugar.
Theo Chocolate Organic Dark Chocolate 85 Percent
Organic fair-trade cocoa beans, organic fair-trade cane sugar, organic fair-trade cocoa butter, and organic fair-trade ground vanilla bean.
My Overall Rating: 8/10 ingredients are great; everything is organic and fair trade. I wish they didn’t use cane sugar, but at least it’s organic.
Hu Salty Dark Chocolate Bar
Organic fair-trade cacao, unrefined organic coconut sugar, organic fair-trade cocoa butter, and sea salt.
My Overall Rating: 7/10 ingredients are decent. I wish more of the ingredients were fair trade, but it is still a much cleaner alternative compared to other choices on this list.
Alter Eco Dark Salted Brown Butter Organic Chocolate Bar 70 Percent
Organic cacao beans, organic fair-trade raw cane sugar, organic fair-trade cocoa butter, organic fair-trade butterfat, sea salt (fleur de sel), and natural flavor.
My Overall Rating: 5/10 ingredients are okay, but it contains milk in the butterfat. Additionally, natural flavors are an instant red flag on any food label for me. I’d like to note that this is not the case for the entire Alter Eco brand; their Classic Black Out bar has remarkable ingredients that I’d rate a 9/10.
Ghirardelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72 Percent Cacao Chocolate Squares
Unsweetened chocolate, cane sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla extract, and soy lecithin.
My Overall Rating: 3/10; there are no organic or fair-trade ingredients. They’re using cane sugar, and as someone with a soy allergy, it’s an absolute no! But still better than the next one.
Divine Chocolate 85 Percent Dark Chocolate Bar
Cocoa mass, cocoa butter, sugar, cocoa powder, sunflower lecithin (emulsifier), vanilla.
My Overall Rating: 2/10 ingredients are terrible. They’re using plain old, gut-altering processed sugar. Additionally, sunflower lecithin is entirely unnecessary and unhealthy in chocolate.
Beyond Good Toasted Coconut Dark Chocolate 70 Percent Cocoa
Organic cocoa beans, organic cane sugar, organic cocoa butter, organic sunflower lecithin (emulsifier), toasted coconut, natural coconut flavoring, and vanilla extract.
My Overall Rating: 5/10; about half of the ingredients are organic. They name their natural flavor, making it less of a red flag, but they’re still using sunflower lecithin as an emulsifier.
Chocolove Almonds and Sea Salt in Strong 70 Percent Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate (cocoa liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla), almonds, and sea salt.
My Overall Rating: 1/10 ingredients are terrible. They’re using plain old, gut-altering processed sugar. Additionally, it’s an absolute no for someone with a soy allergy!
Does Chocolate Really Have Health Benefits?
Almost all chocolate contains cocoa. Cocoa is a pure unsweetened powder that extracts much of the cocoa butter from the chocolate mass but is often Dutch-processed. Dutch-processed cocoa powder starts with cocoa beans washed in an alkaline potassium carbonate solution (11).
Oddly enough, according to the Safety Data Sheet for potassium carbonate, including food grade potassium carbonate, “Ingestion of this material may cause oral, esophageal, glottis redness, irritation, ulceration, edema, and stomach and intestinal irritation and burns. Ingesting large quantities may cause ulceration, vomiting, shock, and death. Repeated or prolonged contact may result in dermatitis (12).”
On the contrary, natural cocoa that hasn’t been Dutch-processed has many medical benefits, including:
- Rich in polyphenols, providing health benefits like reduced inflammation, better blood flow, lower blood pressure, and improved cholesterol and blood sugar levels (13).
- May reduce high blood pressure by enhancing nitric oxide levels (14).
- May lower your heart attack or stroke risk (15, 16).
- May improve mood and symptoms of depression by various means (17)
- Its flavanols may improve symptoms of type 2 diabetes while also potentially aiding in weight control (18, 19).
- May have cancer-protective properties (20).
Cacao also contains theobromine and theophylline, which have caffeine-like effects. It also affects the nervous system and functions as a diuretic. Contrarily cocoa beans contain low variable amounts of caffeine (0.06–0.4%), a well‐known psychostimulant. The higher percentage of cocoa solids, the higher the caffeine content. Unlike caffeine, theobromine (also present in cocoa beans) has only a mild stimulatory effect on the central nervous system (21). These contents can reduce coughing by relaxing smooth muscles, decreasing inflammation, and relaxing your airways, all important in treating asthma (22,23,24).
Cacao also has more antioxidants per ounce than almost any other food on the market. One hundred grams of raw cacao powder has an ORAC score of 95,500 (antioxidant rating). Followed by raw cacao nibs with a score of 62,100 and roasted cocoa powder, 26,000 (25).
Of course, like everything, there are also risks. For some people, sometimes, depending on the quality, chocolate may induce:
- Hypersensitivity occurring due to the caffeine-like effect. Some people may be more sensitive to these effects due to a food allergy or sensitivity (26).
- Migraines may be triggered in some people due to cocoa’s tyramine, histamine, and phenylalanine content (27). I’ve heard this many times as someone who has had chronic migraines since my teenage years. Personally, a few pieces of dark chocolate can usually avert my migraines.
- Kidney stones. Cacao contains oxalic acid, which is known to block the absorption of calcium and magnesium by binding with them and being excreted in the urine as oxalates (28). Sugar combined with chocolate worsens the issue (and even 90% cacao chocolate contains 10% sugar!). Long-term consumption forms calcium-oxalate, which turns into kidney stones! While chocolate probably does not contain enough to be detrimental as an occasional treat, it’s something to think about.
But what about authentic, quality dark chocolate?
Why Quality Matters
For starters, Consumer Labs found most cocoa powders have high concentrations of cadmium, around 1 to 1.5 mcg per gram (29)－which is much higher than the World Health Organization limit of 0.3 mcg per gram.
So how do we know what to look for? Here’s a simple guide:
- Sugar as the first ingredient. Also, look at the types of sugar being used.
- Worst: sugar
- Better: organic cane sugar
- Best: coconut sugar
- Lecithin is used as an emulsifier and isn’t necessary. Especially avoid sunflower and soy lecithin.
- Milk shouldn’t be needed in authentic dark chocolate. Milk may be listed plainly or as butterfat.
- Flavorings should always be a red flag on food labels. Flavoring can be derived from just about anything from plant materials, meat, or dairy products (30).
- Avoid alkalized or Dutch-processed chocolate.
- 70% or higher cacao content. If the percentage is not listed, skip it. Also, be sure cacao is the first ingredient.
- Organic and fair-trade. These ensure they’re cleaner, healthier options with less potential for unnecessary additives.
Looking for a fast, easy way to add quality chocolate to your diet? Try Earthley’s Cocoa Calm, which combines all-natural, antioxidant-rich cocoa powder with three key adaptogens (ashwagandha root, Rhodiola root, and eleuthero root). The result is a cocoa powder that tastes just like chocolate, without added sugars. Cocoa Calm helps you feel calmer and more able to deal with everyday stresses!
Fun ways to use Earthley’s Cocoa Calm:
- Get a piece of toast or a rice cake and add natural peanut butter. Sprinkle Cocoa Calm on top with a drizzle of raw honey.
- Use as an ingredient in homemade hot cocoa.
- Add to your favorite smoothies.
- Add to your morning coffee.
- Add to plain or vanilla Greek yogurt.
- Use as an oatmeal mix-in.
- Add to homemade dessert recipes like Chocolate Fudge Sauce or Chocolate Cake.
You can find several nutritious recipes in Earthley’s free Nourished Living Cookbook.
Final thought: Those who already have calcium deficiencies, kidney stones, hypersensitivity to caffeine or theobromine, etc., should probably avoid or limit chocolate. But for most people, this is a great option to add some tasty nutrients to your diet.