It’s hard to find someone that is not gaga over chocolate. Nothing (save for maybe coffee) gets more confessions of guilty pleasure from clients.

But is all the guilt warranted? 

There are plenty of headlines that taut the remarkable health benefits of about chocolate.  But is it just dark chocolate and is all dark chocolate good?

The answer, of course, is ‘it depends’.  And I hope this will help you decipher what is good and bad.

When we talk about chocolate, we are not talking about one specific thing. It could be anything. A chocolate bar, chocolate chips, cake, ice cream, mousse… the list goes on. 

Whether or not it is good or bad really depends on 2 things: the ingredients in the ‘chocolate’ and, of course, YOU. Let’s walk through these so you can enjoy healthy chocolate, guilt free.

The Ingredients

The most basic ingredient in chocolate is cacao.  Cacao comes from the cacao bean. Now, cacao has a lot of nutritional benefits. It’s an anti-oxidant.  It’s high in magnesium, calcium, iron, protein and fiber.  And it’s high in certain chemicals that are hormone-like neurotransmitters that help us focus and complete tasks.   This is why ‘chocolate’ is praised for having amazing health benefits. You will get the most nutritional value from raw cacao.  So note that the studies usually are looking at raw cacao. 

You can find raw forms of cacao in ingredients like cacao nibs, cacao powder or cacao butter.  As a finished chocolate treat, you can find these ingredients used in raw food treats in the raw food aisle of the grocery store.  Generally, these get a thumbs up if the items I talk about below also check out.

Usually what we see is not cacao but cocoa.

Cocoa is the processed cacao bean.  It is roasted and then processed into a powder or solids.  The roasting process reduces the nutritional value, decreasing the amount of anti-oxidants, minerals, protein and fiber.  While it still offers the same nutrients as cacao, it does so at significantly reduced levels.  So at this point, it is still good for you, maybe not as great as the studies would lead you to believe, but definitely still a thumbs up in my book.

Unfortunately, cacao on it’s own is very, very bitter.  Cocoa is a little less bitter due to the processing that tries to balance the flavor.  In either case, cacao/cocoa needs to be sweetened with something to create the more balanced flavor that we love. 

Unfortunately, cocoa is usually sweetened with sugar.  And this is strike #1 against most chocolate treats/bars.

Sugar, the white stuff, is completely devoid of nutrients so it is very taxing on your body.  It causes digestive, inflammatory and blood sugar issues.  And in most chocolate bars, sugar is listed as the first ingredient meaning that it is by volume the biggest ingredient in the product.

Depending on who you are (see below), this in and of itself could warrant a thumbs down, but if eaten on special occasions, it could be ok.

Some chocolates also contain preservatives and flavorings that make them less desirable.  A simple look at the ingredient list for a chocolate bar you will find things like PGPR, TBHQ (Preservative), vanillin, and the generic “artificial flavor”.  What are these? You can google these and see there is a lot of controversy and dangers associated with them.

We know that the smaller the ingredient list, the better.  And if you don’t know what an ingredients is, you should look it up, and/or just say no.

Any chocolate that has these ingredients gets a thumbs down in my book.

And then there is you.  It’s always important to keep how you react to certain foods front and center.  No matter what the studies or other people say, if a food doesn’t make you feel good, you should avoid it.  That goes for chocolate too.

If you are dealing with any gut, blood sugar or any inflammatory issue, sugar is even more damaging.  It’s best to avoid it and find sugar alternatives that could be more appropriate for you.  

As good as cacao is there are certain natural chemicals or properties that can make it not good for you.  Cacao is high in oxalates, theobromine, caffeine, phenylethylamine (PEA), and anandamide

Oxalates are anti-nutrients.  Oxalates can be difficult for some of us to break them down and so they can cause various symptoms like anxiety and pain.  Our ability to breakdown oxalates is primarily based on our gut flora but also sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals like B6 and magnesium.  (Ironically, the very minerals refined sugar depletes from your body.)

Theobromine, caffeine, phenylethylamine (PEA), and anandamide are all stimulants or neurotransmitters.  They can affect the adrenals, the nervous system and the brain’s pleasure centers. While they can help us focus, complete tasks and make us ‘feel good’, for some they can be too stimulating.  This is something that you need to pay attention to.  If you feel nervous, sleepless or have a rapid heartbeat after eating chocolate, chocolate may not be good for you. 

To satisfy your chocolate craving, you can look at carob powder, which tastes similar to chocolate and can be used as a substitute in most homemade recipes. 

The good news is that there are many ways to enjoy chocolate without the sugar and ‘other’ ingredients!  You can find some chocolates that are made with maple syrup or coconut sugar.  My favorite chocolate bar right now is Hu Salty Dark Chocolate.   I found it at my local Whole Foods.

And you can always make your own…here is a link to my raw chocolate brownie and peppermint chocolate recipe.

I’ll be sending more healthy chocolate recipes so stay tuned!

Check out my upcoming local cooking class in Fairfax CA — Healthy Eating for Busy Moms — that will help you get healthy food on the table even with your busy schedule!