Chocolate is defined as “a food preparation in the form of a paste or solid block made from roasted and ground cacao seeds, typically sweetened”. You’ll often hear that chocolate is good for you. Yet studies show that eating chocolate is associated with both positive and negative health outcomes. This is likely because not all chocolate is created equal. In order to reap the benefits of chocolate (without the harm), let’s break down the different forms of chocolate, so you can stick with the healthy ones and steer clear of the unhealthy ones.
The process of making chocolate all starts with the cacao tree, which is native to tropical regions of Central and South America. The tree produces fruit, called a cacao pod. These pods contain 20-60 seeds (called “beans”). Once harvested, cacao beans go through a “sweating” process in which they are laid out for a few days. This separates the beans from a pulp that covers them. The beans are then fermented for up to a week, and spread out to dry for another 1-2 weeks. After the beans dry, they are ready to be processed, which is when the health differences start to occur.
At this stage, cacao beans are loaded with health-promoting nutrients. They are an extremely rich source of antioxidants (nutrients that keep us healthy on a cellular level) and flavanols (compounds that appear to be especially good for our cardiovascular system). They also contain a variety of essential minerals, including: potassium, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
Unfortunately, cacao beans lose some of these nutrients when they are processed. And when fat and sugar are added to make chocolate, you’re often left with a product that bears very little resemblance to the original cacao bean. A Hershey’s bar, for example, is mostly milk fat and sugar. It contains very little cacao and thus, has little to offer nutritionally.
The key is to choose minimally-processed sources of cacao, while avoiding “chocolate-like” products that are mostly sugar and fat. To help you do this, here is a breakdown of cacao products you might find at the grocery store or on the ingredient list of a chocolate bar:
- Cacao nibs: These are chopped up cacao beans. They are one of the least processed ways to consume cacao, and thus contain all of those original, health-promoting nutrients.
- Cocoa butter: This is the fatty part that is extracted from the cacao bean. It is often added back when making chocolate, or can be used in soaps or lotions. Cocoa butter contains mostly fat and very few nutrients, making it the least healthy part of the cacao bean.
- Cacao powder: This is the part of the cacao bean that is left over when the cocoa butter (fat) is extracted. It retains nearly all of the original non-fat nutrients, making cacao powder arguably the healthiest form of cacao you can consume.
- Cocoa powder: This is similar to cacao powder, except that it has been heated at a much higher temperature. This makes it slightly sweeter, but some of the nutrients are destroyed. It is still a good source of nutrients, but cacao powder is preferable.
The best way to include cacao into your diet is through the cacao nibs, cacao powder, or cocoa powder because they undergo very little processing and retain most of the original nutrients found in the cacao bean. Here’s how to include them in your diet:
- Cacao nibs are small, chocolate chip-like bits that have a deep, bitter, chocolate flavor. They can be added to smoothies, used as a topping on oatmeal or smoothie bowls, included in trail mix or granola bars, or used in baking.
- Cacao powder and cocoa powder are great for making things chocolaty. They can be used to make a healthy chocolate frosty, energy bars/balls, pudding, or used in baking.
Another way to include cacao into your diet, is by eating actual chocolate. However, because the cocoa butter (or some other fat) has been added back, along with sugar, this is a less healthy option that will contain more calories than cacao nibs or powder. Yet, dark chocolate, in small amounts, can still be part of a healthy diet.
When picking out the healthiest chocolate, choose a dark chocolate bar with the highest percentage of cacao/cocoa. This chocolate is less sweet and slightly more bitter than the chocolate most people are used to. It’s an acquired taste, similar to coffee or wine. You’ll get used to it over time. Lindsay and I used to think 70% cocoa chocolate was bitter. Now we buy 85% cocoa chocolate, which we have come to prefer.
Milk chocolate, on the other hand, is mostly milk fat and sugar and contains very little cacao. This form of chocolate does not confer any health benefits, and will likely undermine your health. The same goes for other “chocolate-like” products, such as chocolate candy, candy bars, ice cream, etc. When you hear on the news that “chocolate is good for you”, they’re referring to cacao, not a Snickers bar.
Bottom line: The cacao bean is a nutrient-dense food that offers numerous health benefits. Reap these benefits by including cacao nibs, cacao powder, cocoa powder, or high-percentage dark chocolate (in small amounts) into your diet. Avoid milk chocolate, candy bars, and chocolate ice cream, as these forms of chocolate will cause more harm than good.
If you’re now in the mood for something chocolaty, try my guilt-free, vegan chocolate frosty.