Updated: Aug 18, 2022
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
I often hear clients including chocolate on their list of ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ foods. While I don’t think it is always helpful to label foods like this, I do want to offer some words of reassurance….
Chocolate can be healthy. In fact, if you take the right type of chocolate, it is good for you!
Firstly, when we talk about the benefits of chocolate and cocoa, it is dark chocolate or pure cocoa powder being discussed. Typically, chocolate products with at least 75% cocoa solids are considered dark enough to yield health benefits.
Cocoa is a potent source of polyphenols, especially flavonoids. Polyphenols are compounds that have many health benefits. Dark chocolate contains more flavonoids per mg than apples, tea, red wine and cranberries.
Cocoa flavonoids have strong anti-inflammatory actions and have been shown to have a favourable impact on:
Gut microbiome diversity and immune health
Type 2 Diabetes
High blood pressure
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
Cocoa is also an excellent source of iron, magnesium and copper. The bitter taste of chocolate can also promote healthy digestion.
The Bad (but not insurmountable)
Chocolate contains stimulants. The most well-known are caffeine and theobromine (known collectively as methyxanthines). While these both have some benefits, in general the intake of too many stimulants it not ideal.
Caffeine activates the stress response resulting in cortisol release. This can interfere with sleep, disrupt blood sugar and trigger anxiety. Some people may also find it difficult to metabolise caffeine, which can be due to genetic factors. This means that they are more prone to the effects of caffeine.
How much caffeine is in chocolate? Well dark chocolate (>75%) can have more caffeine than a shot of espresso or a can of Coke (although the level of caffeine in cocoa is a hotly debated topic).
Did you know that the caffeine content of chocolate varies by region? In general South American cocoa has more caffeine than cocoa beans from Africa. In one example, 50g of dark chocolate (75% cocoa solids) from Venezuela contained 77mg of caffeine, while the same amount of 75% Ghanaian chocolate contained 28mg.
Some studies have suggested that theobromine is implicated in benign breast lumps (fibrocystic breast disease). In one study women who totally excluded or limited their intake of theobromine-containing foods/drinks found significant improvement (>75%) in their symptoms.
The takeaway? If you are consuming dark chocolate in the evenings, or if you are already stressed/anxious, choose dark chocolate from African cocoa beans.
If you are a woman with benign ‘lumpy breasts’ from fibrocystic breast disease, then you might find benefit removing any sources of theobromine from your diet (that includes coffee and chocolate I am afraid).
Chocolate containing less than 75% cocoa solids loses most of the health benefits. This type of chocolate is also much higher in sugar, saturated animal fat, vegetable fats (like palm oil), chemical emulsifiers and synthetic flavourings.
Milk chocolate has a particularly high sugar content. This means that it has a smoother texture and is more addictive. It also means that it will spike blood sugar, leading to weight gain, mood swings, cravings and digestive imbalance. Chocolate spreads contain very little cocoa and huge amounts of sugar and palm oil. There are no health benefits to these at all.
Because of the sweetness of lower cocoa chocolate, you tend to crave more and pick up more of the health drawbacks. While darker chocolate is more bitter, this means that you typically don’t eat as much, but still feel the benefit of the chocolate hit!
Chocolate can be healthy, but it must be dark chocolate / pure cocoa.
There are many health benefits to eating dark chocolate – but don’t overdo it. Two squares a day is plenty.
The polyphenols in dark chocolate are good for heart, gut and brain health!
Sweeter milk chocolate is full of chemicals and sugar and have none of the health promoting benefits of dark (>75%) chocolate.
Dark chocolate is a source of caffeine. Choose chocolate made from African cocoa beans to reduce the caffeine intake or limit your intake of dark chocolate if you suffer with anxiety or insomnia.
Tips for Including Chocolate in your Diet
Sprinkle cacao nibs on your porridge with a handful of raspberries.
Chocolate Porridge: Add 1 teaspoon of good quality cocoa or cacao powder to your porridge and 2 diced prunes (to keep you regular!).
DIY Antioxidant Trail Mix: handful each of dark chocolate, Brazil nuts and dried blueberries. Chop the nuts and chocolate to roughly the same size as the blueberries. Should do 3-4 snack portions.
Spiced Hot Chocolate: Fill a mug 2/3 full with coconut milk (or any milk of your choice), heat in the microwave or on the hob until scalding. Mix in 20g of dark chocolate (chopped), a pinch of cinnamon and a pinch of cardamom. Stir until the chocolate has melted and enjoy.
Homemade truffles. Try my healthy, dairy-free chocolate truffles.