Can chocolate can be part of a healthy diet?

Whether it's white, milk or dark, raw or roasted, which chocolate delivers a nutritional hit?

Raw or roasted?

Whether you like it in a steaming mug of cocoa or artisan truffles, all chocolate starts with the cacao tree, and large fruit pods containing seeds called cacao beans.

Once harvested, the beans are fermented and dried. For commercial chocolate, they are roasted at a high temperature. The shells are then removed to leave the essence of the bean; cocoa butter and cocoa solids.

Shelled beans are then ground into a paste known as chocolate liquor — which, despite the name, doesn’t actually contain alcohol — and substances such as sugar, milk, oil, emulsifiers, and extra cocoa butter are added to turn it into chocolate.

‘Raw chocolate’, made from cacao beans (raw cocoa) that have been roasted at low temperatures or left to dry in the sun, retains nutrients that would otherwise have been destroyed by roasting at high temperatures.

What is the difference between cacao and cocoa?

Cacao is rich in magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper and manganese. It also contains flavonoids - plant compounds thought to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Epicatechin, one of the main flavonoids in cacao, has even been associated with improvements in various aspects of cognition, and has been linked to improvements in mood.

Paula Werrett, head of undergraduate courses at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and a registered nutritional therapist, says it’s important to understand that raw beans also contain so-called ‘anti-nutrients’ called lectins, which can make it difficult for the body to absorb the nutrients. “Plus high quality cocoa and cocoa products are generally less expensive and still contain many nutritious components that may be better absorbed.” 

‘Cocoa’ is used to describe beans roasted at a higher temperature. Although, as Werrett notes, some cocoa products are better quality than others.

What’s the difference between white, milk and dark chocolate?

White chocolate

This childhood favourite isn’t technically ‘chocolate’ because it contains no actual cocoa. Instead, it’s mostly cocoa butter, sugar and milk, which give it a sweet and creamy taste.

Milk chocolate

Milk chocolate usually contains smaller quantities of cocoa solids, and higher levels of added sugar, cocoa butter and milk.

Dark chocolate

Compared with milk chocolate, dark chocolate usually has a higher percentage of cocoa solids (anything from 50-100%) and generally contains less sugar. Yet some brands can be labelled as ‘dark’ despite being low in cocoa and high in sugar - so check the label. Ideally, choose a bar with as few ingredients as possible, around 70% cocoa at least, and in which sugar or emulsifiers don’t appear high up on the ingredients list, if at all.

Dark chocolate may offer some health benefits. In one randomised control trial, participants with type 2 diabetes who ate roughly one square of dark chocolate each day for eight weeks saw improvements in health markers such as fasting blood sugar and blood pressure; whereas those with type 2 diabetes who consumed white chocolate did not. (There was no improvement in weight or insulin resistant status.)

Dark chocolate also contains anandamide, a chemical that acts on receptors in the brain, improving mood.

Dark chocolate can taste bitter compared with milk chocolate, so pair 70% cocoa chocolate with a few nuts and berries to get used to the taste. Try strawberries (when in season) dipped in melted dark chocolate as an elegant after dinner treat. In hot chocolate, add cinnamon or even chilli instead of sugar for a spicy take on the usual bedtime drink.

The bottom line

If you’re concerned about blood sugars or insulin resistance, chocolate with a higher cocoa/cacao percentage and less sugar should have less impact on blood sugar. However, despite its benefits, chocolate should be eaten in moderation and ideally after a meal.


What to look for:

  • Think dark or go raw.

  • Aim for the products that contain as few ingredients as possible.

  • Chocolate, cocoa or cacao should also appear first on the ingredient list.

  • Watch out for hidden sugar: anything ending in the letters –ose or ingredients such as maltodextrin.


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