I’ve been reading a ton of health-related articles from mainstream media lately that have been really getting under my skin. Look, I minored in journalism and I work in public relations, so I interact with press quite frequently. And because of that, I have much respect for the profession. This is not to discredit them, but it is to point out some blatant fallacies and stories that only look at one specific piece of the puzzle. Omission is the cousin of deceit.
The article that’s on my mind is a Vox piece on how “dark chocolate is now a health food” and it explains how that happened, which, from the journalist’s perspective, is that over the last 30 years, the mega food companies like Nestle, Mars, Cadbury and Hershey’s have funded studies and research on cocoa to support these “health benefits” that support its agenda.
I actually have no problem with that argument, and have previously written about food companies funding research that serves their own purposes, like Dannon funding and sponsoring research studies from The American Diabetes Association that support dairy can help reduce the risk of diabetes. In fact, I think we need MORE awareness on this blatant deceit to the public, and laws and regulations in place to call for more transparency.
What I have a problem with is the overzealous headline and general premise that chocolate (whether healthy or not — the reporter leaves that open ended within the article) has only been evangelized as the next health superfood BECAUSE OF these big candy companies funding self-serving research. While that is very likely a contributing factor, it’s actually not the entire story, and in fact, many holistic health companies, experts, practitioners and food manufactures have been educating people on the very real (studied and proven) benefits of raw cocoa — aka dark chocolate — for years. It’s always been healthy, until the food behemoths figured out that they could make it taste “really good” (and addictive) by pumping it full of sugar, milk, caramel, etc. and turning it from a health food to a junk food.
There are plenty of brands that care about quality ingredients, sustainable and ethically sourced cocoa, and are on a mission to provide the best, healthiest and most pure form of chocolate available for consumers. Some of my favorites are Green & Black’s, Santa Barabara’s Chocolate, and Eating Evolved. Industry experts like Dr. Josh Axe, Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, and many many more have been openly out there advocating for the health benefits of dark chocolate.
The bottom line here is that dark chocolate is healthy, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And I am going to share some of the health benefits with you momentarily. There have been many scientific food science studies that show the positive effects chocolate can have on our bodies and brains.
But we need to first clear something up. Not all dark chocolate is created equal and yes, we have the candy companies to thank for tricking the mainstream public into thinking “this packaging says ‘superfood’ and my chocolate bar has avocado in it, so it must be healthy!” In fact, what’s the opposite of healthy is Cadbury’s new “dark chocolate avocado” bar that promises to pack a powerful superfood punch. Why? Because it’s LOADED with added/processed sugars (it has almost as much as the traditional Cadbury milk chocolate bar) — 49 grams to be exact. And is only 70 percent chocolate (cocoa mass, cocoa butter), which means 30 percent other ingredients like emulsifiers and sugar. This was the catalyst for the Vox article.
I’ve pasted the ingredients as well as the nutrition facts from the company’s website below. If you look closer, the “avocado pulp” only accounts for 5 percent of ingredients, and the emulsifier (sunflower lecithin) is 0.1 percent, meaning the rest of the chocolate bar is roughly 20 percent sugar. Let me repeat. Twenty percent of this chocolate bar is SUGAR.
INGREDIENTS: 80g Ecuador 70% Organic fairly-traded dark chocolate: Cocoa mass, cocoa butter, fairly-traded raw cane sugar, 5% avocado pulp, vanilla extract, emulsifier: sunflower lecithin 0.1%. Min. Cocoa solids 70%.
NUTRITION FACTS: Ecuador 70% (per 100g): Protein 7.1g, Energy: 574 kcal/2392 kJ, Fats 38g, Saturated Fat 23g, Carbohydrates 50.5g, Sugar 49g, Salt 0.22mg, Fibre 2g
To compare quickly, let’s look at a 100 percent dark chocolate bar and as well as one that’s 85 percent cocoa solids.
See the difference? Look at the one on the right (Green & Black’s). It has 20 percent of your daily fiber in a serving (which is almost half a chocolate bar!), and only 5 grams of sugar and 9 grams net carbs (total grams carbs minus total grams of fiber).
The general rule of thumb is the closer you go to 100 percent raw cacao/cocoa solids, the healthier and more nutrient-dense the final product will be. While there is no “official” industry standard, something can be considered dark chocolate if it falls within the range of 70-100 percent cacao or cocoa solids. I legit eat straight up raw cacao chips and powder (for making hot chocolate!), or as cacao nibs, which are ground up pieces of the actual inside of the cocoa bean and the purest form of chocolate that undergoes no heat or processing (unless you get roasted cacao nibs).
As you might imagine, it’s pretty bitter and insanely rich. Some food companies like to bend the rules and market “dark chocolate” at 60 percent cocoa mass, but let me tell you, if your dark chocolate has milk in it, it ain’t dark. That’s a marketing ploy and it’s dishonest, quite frankly.
The good news when it comes to real dark chocolate? You don’t need a lot to satisfy your craving. I like to stay in the 85-100 percent range for chocolate, and only look for brands that have organic, fair-trade chocolate and have less than 4 or 5 grams of sugar per serving. I do not eat chocolate brands with emulsifiers in them (see below for why). And if you are buying high-quality chocolate from a trusted health brand, you don’t need it! (You’ll pay more for the chocolate, but can you put a price on your health….or chocolate?)
What gives good dark chocolate bars their natural “creaminess” is cocoa butter. But that’s expensive and harder to mass produce, which is why most conventional chocolate brands use emulsifiers. These are food additives (processed, not natural) that improve overall texture and extend the shelf life. But they also have been linked to colon cancer and can have negative effects on our gut by throwing off the balance of bacteria (gut flora) in our intestines, and causing chronic inflammation that leads to leaky gut (something I am currently healing from).
This is the tradeoff companies have made for convenience and profit. And the only harm it’s doing is to the consumer.
So what are these “mystical” health benefits I’ve been hinting at this entire article?
Rich in antioxidants that fight free radicals. This may be the one health benefit you’re most familiar with because it’s the most common. But what does that really mean? Antioxidants are molecules that fight/neutralize damage by free radicals, which are unbalanced compounds created by cellular processes in the body, especially those that fight against environmental toxins. Antioxidants include vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (plant compounds), and are found in fruits like blueberries, pomegranates and acai. The two main groups of antioxidants in dark chocolate are flavonoids and polyphenols. Free radicals are constantly formed through metabolism and the truth is we need them on some level in our bodies, but if we have too many, it can have negative health effects (oxidative stress). Antioxidants help keep free radicals in check. It’s confusing, I know. This Healthline article did a really great job of explaining in detail the relationship between antioxidants and free radicals.
Increases HDL (good) & lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. In a controlled study, cocoa powder was shown to significantly decrease oxidized LDL cholesterol in men, increase HDL and lowered total LDL for those with high cholesterol. This is likely a result of the antioxidant compounds which help oxidize LDL. I cannot stress this enough Stop fearing fat! We’ve been told by the government and by all of thee conventional food companies that fat is bad. This opened up the door for food manufactures to go back to their labs and carefully create the “perfect” low fat foods, snacks, canned goods etc. But what happens when you remove natural fats from foods? They taste off. So, to counter that, food scientists purposefully tweak the levels of salt and sugar to achieve “optimum taste.” Our bodies and brain need healthy fats from coconuts, dark chocolate, avocados and even oils. If you want a bit of a deeper dive on this, check out this article I wrote the keto diet.
Regulates blood sugar and blood pressure levels. The flavanols present in cocoa have been shown to support nitric oxide (NO) production in the inner cell lining of our blood vessels, which helps to relax the blood vessels and improve blood flow (aka lowering blood pressure. Flavanols can also increase insulin sensitivity in some to help regulate blood sugar levels and potentially reduce the risk of diabetes long-term, although there are other factors that come into play as well.
Improves heart health. Building on the above, because flavanols in dark chocolate help lower blood pressure and improve blood flow, they also have a positive effect on heart health, and have been shown to reduce the risk of blood clots and stroke.
Full of vitamins and nutrients. A bar of dark chocolate (100 g) will contain around 11 grams of fiber, 67 percent of your recommended daily intake of iron, 58 percent RDI for magnesium, 89 percent RDI for copper and also has zinc, selenium, potassium and phosphorus.
Makes you happy. Yep. Dark chocolate is good for your brain and your mood. Isn’t that the best benefit of all? The flavanols and (antioxidants) in dark chocolate also have an anti-inflammatory effect, which directly benefits the brain, and are key for regulating your mood and helping with depression. So go ahead, grab for that dark chocolate bar and indulge guilt-free because you’re doing your body a great favor!