The question we all want to be answered is this: is my chocolate obsession good, or bad?
This article is for me as much as you, because I am curious to know as well! I know chocolate has healthy components in it, but do those benefits outweigh the potential pitfalls associated with adding milk to it. Do we have to eat vegan chocolate in order for it to be healthy? What about the difference between milk and dark chocolate? Does chocolate lead to weight gain?
These questions and more will all be answered here!
Cocoa comes from the dried beans of the cacao tree and just as we see with other nuts and beans, they provide health benefits!
Most of us know the history of the cocoa industry. What started as a bitter drink in South America was transported to Spain and the rest of Europe where it was used in combination with sugar and other spices, along with eventually adding it to milk to create hot cocoa. It wasn't until the l9th century that dutch processing made cocoa powder easier to make and we saw the first chocolate bar. By the 20th century, there were many well-known brands that had figured out how to mass-produce milk and sugar-infused cocoa into the chocolate that we now know today.
But is this modern type of chocolate consumption actually good for us?
Unfortunately, if looking at the majority of chocolate consumption in Western civilizations today, the answer is likely no, due to the fact that very little of the cocoa solids are left in modern candy bars, and that chocolate bars just end up being a concentrated source of sugar and saturated fat and therefore calories.
Unfortunately, we also see that the antioxidant capabilities of cocoa are disrupted by adding milk to it or consuming it with milk (such as in hot cocoa), and therefore many of the ways chocolate is consumed today are conferring no health benefit.
So, we are likely to see that regular chocolate consumption from more processed, less dark sources is likely to lead to weight gain.
But is there a way to eat cocoa that is healthy?
The good news is yes!
Consuming cocoa powder and cacao nibs are great ways to increase polyphenol (especially flavonoid) consumption which may construe many antioxidant health benefits linked to cardiovascular, diabetic, and immune improvements, among others.
Cocoa solids (from cocoa powder and cacao nibs) are also a good source of minerals such as manganese, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and more.
Not only these but coca/chocolate appears to have prebiotic capabilities, which means that any fiber left undigested by us can make it to the colon and be digested by our good bacteria. They can break down fiber into beneficial short-chain fatty acids and also help break down large polyphenols into more absorbable forms for us. Our gut bacteria is even partially responsible for our cravings, which may explain why eating chocolate leads to more chocolate cravings!
There is a difference between natural cocoa powder and Dutch-processed powder, which has been treated with an alkaline solution to remove some of the bitterness. Unfortunately, bitter is better when it comes to beneficial compounds, so you need to use more dutch processed cocoa to get the same health benefits from natural cocoa powder (about 1 tablespoon as opposed to 1 tsp).
For tips on how to incorporate more cocoa powder into your diet, see my suggestions for healthy chocolate recipes below.
What about chocolate bars though?
When it comes to the research, I think it's safe to conclude that the darker you go with your chocolate bar, the more antioxidants it will contain, and the less fat and sugar it will contain, making it healthier than milk chocolate.
In comparison to cocoa powder, chocolate bars are a lot more calorie-dense (more calories per gram), but if you must eat chocolate (and who doesn't?) dark chocolate (75% or more) is recommended.
Wondering about white chocolate? White chocolate is literally just cocoa butter (the fat extracted from the bean) mixed with sugar, milk, and an emulsifier. Sadly, that means it has zero of the health benefits that cocoa offers and all of the calories.
What about the difference between regular and vegan chocolate bars? Or fair-trade chocolate?
Fortunately for plant-based eaters, cocoa powder is vegan!
But unfortunately, with vegan chocolate bars, a lot of the same pitfalls remain (high fat and sugar, just coming from vegan sources), and therefore vegan chocolate may not end up being all that much more "healthy". However, many companies use alternative whole food sources of sugar which may improve the overall health composition of the bar. Also, perhaps by avoiding dairy, we might improve the phytochemical absorption from the cocoa, along with avoiding the unwanted consequences of supporting the dairy industry.
Many vegan chocolate bar companies also emphasize fair-trade practices, which means that the cocoa is sourced from farms using ethical employment practices (aka no children or forced labor). For a list of fair-trade chocolate, check out this list from WorldVision.ca.
In my opinion, and that of other research-based practitioners, we can incorporate chocolate (mostly from cocoa powder and dark chocolate) in our daily routine and actually see health benefits. The downfall comes when chocolate becomes a concentrated source of sugar and fat in our diets, either from choosing milk chocolate or by consuming too much dark chocolate on a regular basis.
To reap the most benefits from the cacao plant, choose chocolate recipes that derive the chocolate flavor from cocoa powder as opposed to chocolate bars or chocolate chips. And if you do choose to consume processed chocolate bars or chips on a regular basis, the darker the better.
Healthy Chocolate Recipes
I've decided to write these recipes right down inside this article to make them easy to access.
Single Serving Chocolate Oatmeal
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 cup plant-based milk or water
2 tbsp cocoa powder
1–2 tbsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
Combine the ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 2.5-3 minutes.
1 cup of plant-based milk (soy is very creamy)
2 tablespoons of cocoa powder
1-2 tablespoons of maple syrup or 2-3 whole, pitted dates
1 cup of frozen fruit (frozen cherries, blueberries, bananas, strawberries, etc.)
optional 2 tablespoons of ground flax seeds to thicken
Blend until smooth and enjoy!
Chocolate Pudding by The Full Helping
16 ounces silken tofu
1 cup (5 oz/150 g) chopped dark or semi-sweet vegan chocolate
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/4 cup maple syrup or agave syrup (substitute coconut sugar or cane sugar)
Melt chocolate in a double broiler or microwave and add it to a blender or food processor with the other ingredients. Blend until creamy and chill/store in the fridge.
Chocolate Nice Cream
2 frozen bananas
2 tbsp of cocoa powder
1 tbsp of maple syrup (optional)
1/4 -1/2 cup of plant milk of choice
Toppings of choice
Combine and blend in a food processor or strong blender. Eat as soft-serve immediately, or freeze in a container to make a harder version you can scoop like regular ice cream
1 cup plant-based milk
1.5 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tbsp dark chocolate chips (optional)
1–2 tbsp maple syrup or date/coconut sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Heat milk in the microwave for 2-3 minutes. Add in cocoa powder, sweetener, and cinnamon and mix well.
Heavenly Chocolate Avocado Muffins
See the recipe here.
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