The truth about chocolate—it isn’t all bad news
When it comes to chocolate, we’ve all heard the message that it causes weight gain. Yet there’s also some conflicting information out there about the antioxidants in chocolate being good for you. So what’s true and what’s false? And can you enjoy chocolate guilt free?
A randomised control trial from Yale found that while the sugar and fat (cocoa butter) in chocolate were bad for you, the actual cacao beans, sold as cocoa powder, do provide potential health benefits.
When it comes to cocoa, bitter seems to be better. Dark chocolate has potent antioxidant properties that appear to benefit our heart health.
A 2007 study showed improvements in coronary artery function within two hours of consuming dark chocolate. Dark chocolate has also proven to be beneficial to the blood vessels in our brain, with researchers in Sweden finding that moderate consumption may reduce the risk of stroke.
Eating cocoa rather than chocolate can have additional heart health benefits. To help lower your blood pressure, including cocoa regularly in your diet may have a protective effect. The important differentiation being in the unprocessed form of cocoa powder, not milk chocolate.
Processing the cocoa and adding milk starts to block the effects of phytonutrients that lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
The not so good
Chocolate is well recognised as an energy dense “treat” food. And consuming chocolate in excess will contribute to weight gain.
But dark chocolate is good, right?
As mentioned earlier, adding milk and sugar to cocoa can negate the effects of the polyphenols working to benefit our health. But even dairy-free dark chocolate can be made of things we don’t want—fat and sugar.
The fat in dark chocolate is saturated cocoa butter, and one of the few plant-based fats that are unhealthy and will raise your cholesterol.
Some whole food chocolate alternatives to consider:
- Healthy Bliss Balls—blend together your choice of fruit and nuts as well as cocoa or cacao powder
- Brownies—use raw cacao powder and sweeten with pure maple syrup
- Sue Radd’s Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse—this recipe uses silken tofu, 85% dark chocolate and maple syrup to sweeten (you’ll find the recipe in her Food as Medicine cookbook).
- Chocolate Cacao Cookies
- Healthy Chocolate Cake—use cocoa powder, a healthy fat like peanut butter or extra virgin olive oil and sweeten with natural sugars like dates, honey or stevia.
The bottom line
Chocolate can be included as part of a healthy balanced diet. Preferably in the form of pure unprocessed cocoa or cacao powder.
You can enjoy chocolate without guilt. Choose dark chocolate over milk or white chocolate, and keep it limited to a treat.
Sue Radd is an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian and one of Australia’s leading nutritionists and health communicators. Her most recent book Food as Medicine: Eating for Your Best Health received the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best Health and Nutrition Book in the world for 2016.