Is chocolate healthy or not? Oh, if only I could shout a definitive YES! Wouldn’t that be awesome?
But to answer you correctly, I would have to ask that when you say chocolate, what do you mean? Chocolate meant something completely different to me ten years ago from what it means to me today…
Let me explain.
Until I got really serious about my food and did a bit of research, the word chocolate would conjure up particular images. For example, my favourite chocolate bar is the silken sauce over my ice cream or the powder I used for my hot chocolate (or ate from the can, if I’m honest). The only variation I couldn’t instantly eat was the cocoa powder for baking. Many of you know (as I do) that it was also a one-way ticket to acne breakouts, a few extra kilos on the hips and a headache. But then – there was all this hype about dark chocolate being healthier, certain types of chocolate helping with blood pressure regulation, and an antioxidant? So how could it possibly be healthy and cause so much havoc in my body?
So What’s The Difference?
It turns out that there are different types of chocolate and varying processing methods differentiate them.
Type of Chocolate
You may have noticed the chocolate ingredient listed as either cacao or cocoa. I thought that was just a spelling error back in the day, but it turns out there is a bit – nay – big difference. But even though their processing methods are different, most consumers use different spellings interchangeably.
Also known as: raw cocoa, raw cacao, superfood, vegan cocoa, true chocolate
Taste profile: strong, bitter, acidic
Appearance: dark brown, fine dust-like powder
Variations: nibs/liquor, powder
Used in: baking, drinks, sauces, desserts, cooking
Processing: Other than the initial fermentation, drying and grounding process, very little is done
Nutrition Profile: The processing is minimal and done at low heat or using friction only. The nutritional profile is mostly unharmed. Without getting into the technical stuff, the beneficial components are:
Minerals – magnesium being the most notable and useful as a relaxant
Polyphenolic compounds: Flavan-3-ols are responsible for the bitter flavour and the potent antioxidant effects.
Healthy fats: oleic acid the same found in olive oil
Using good quality dark chocolate made with raw cacao is beneficial in fighting against cardiovascular disease, lowering cholesterol, insulin resistance and much more. But, before you decide it’s all good, let’s talk about cocoa.
Also known as: cocoa powder, coco, hot chocolate, chocolate
Taste profile: creamy, mild
Appearance: light to dark brown powder
Used in: baking, drinks, sauces, desserts
Processing: It begins with the same processing followed by cacao with the addition of being heated and most likely mixed with other components. NOTE: Most cocoa powders are mixed with fillers, anti-caking agents, sweeteners, whey powders and various other additives.
Nutrition Profile: The nutritional profile starts the same as cacao. It gets diminished by additional processing, adding of ingredients and dilution.
So how much chocolate is in my chocolate?
It appears to be anything from zero, typically labelled as ‘flavoured’ and synthetic based, all the way to 100%, which is usually found in specialized boutique shops. The only way to know is to make sure you read the label or contact the manufacturer. Alternatively, buy cacao or cocoa powder and make your own dishes. This is the ultimate level of controlling how much chocolate is in your chocolate.
Getting back to “When you say chocolate, what do you mean?”
Hopefully, you are a little less confused by that question now. Chocolate, like so many foodie words nowadays, is used very loosely. Manufacturers also use cacao and cocoa interchangeably; it can get confusing. What I have come to understand is this (based upon my personal opinion):
- Chocolate is an ingredient or flavour (not the enemy)
- Chocolate can be used for good (as part of a healthy eating plan), or
- Chocolate can be used for bad (loaded with fillers, additives and miscellaneous stuff)
- Chocolate, as it is presented to the public, is more sugar than chocolate
- Often the statement: I need a chocolate fix, is actually a need for a sugar fix. Now that I know better, I use chocolate as a key part of a healthy diet. A chocolate treat can either help build my health or send me into a sugar frenzy…
- Both can be made with raw cacao, whether it is the sugar frenzy or building health option.
What’s going to stop you from using cacao
Okay, so maybe you are all fired up about using the healthier version of chocolate. There are a few things that may put you off, though, so let’s deal with them quickly.
Raw Cacao is expensive
- Maybe some of you can find a reasonably priced supplier, but here where I live, it’s right up there with buying an island. As a result, I am very selective about when and how I use it. I make it count. It is going to be rich, decadent and as healthy as possible.
Raw Cacao is strong
- This helps with the expensive thing. Raw cacao is potent, and you don’t need as much as you would with regular cocoa.
- If you are swopping out cacao for cocoa, try the full amount for the first try of the recipe. Then, if it’s too overpowering, reduce the amount by a teaspoon or two for the next attempt.
- If this is a new ingredient you are trying, it will require experimentation.
Raw Cacao is bitter
- Many of you are probably picturing a delicious cup of hot chocolate after the reference earlier but beware. This requires using a neat version of the powder, and you may be in for a little surprise. Remember those flavan-3-ols mentioned under the nutritional profile – they are strong, and as healthy as they are, they are bitter. Again, you are introducing a new flavour, and it takes time and adjustment. You cannot use it the same as common cocoa. Perhaps start with blending cocoa and cacao, and then gradually change the ratio.
Chocolate – Healthy or Not?
If you are looking at chocolate as an ingredient in the purest form you can get and afford – then the answer is an easy yes. However, what you add to it determines its ultimate level of healthy or not.
All this talk about chocolate probably has you motivated to try out a few recipes? I am way ahead of you — pop on over to 5 Effortless Chocolatey Recipes For You To Try. I added one of my own favourites and reached out to my colleagues for some recipes. They are diverse and delicious, so be sure to check them out, and don’t forget to show us. We love to see your creations #nutrichologist
CAUTIONSomething I did not mention earlier is the compound Theobromine. This is one of the compounds in chocolate that makes us humans so happy when we eat chocolate. The more diluted the cacao is the less of an effect it has on us. The problem arises when we think it’s a good idea to feed it to our pets. Depending on the strength it can have a mild to lethal effect on our pets. It’s known as chocolate poisoning and causes anything from mild diarrhea and nausea to seizures and death. Dogs are particularly vulnerable. To be safe, please do not feed chocolate to your pets.