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Chocolate: the Dark Secret

Valentine’s Day is approaching, and the store shelves are stocked with heart shaped boxes filled with chocolate. It is the time of year when the news stories remind us of research indicating that chocolate is a healthy choice for our heart ... but is it really a health food?

Let’s look at the facts.

What is Chocolate?

Chocolate is extracted from a cacao bean, and it contains chocolate liquor. A hydraulic press separates the liquor into cocoa butter and cocoa powder.  Extra whole milk or extra cocoa butter is added to chocolate to keep it stable at room temperature. The warmth of a person’s mouth melts the chocolate to release the chocolate flavor that people around the world enjoy.

Are All Chocolates Good For You?

If you are looking for the health benefits of chocolate, forget the caramel, marshmallow, cream- filled, or milk chocolate. They have added fat, sugar, and calories.

Why is Dark Chocolate a Better Choice?

The health benefits of dark chocolate come from flavonoids, a type of plant chemical found in cacao beans. Flavonoids are antioxidants. The more cocoa a chocolate product contains, the richer it is in flavonoids - and dark chocolate contains a higher amount than milk chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate. Dark chocolate contains a higher amount of cocoa than milk chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate.

For example, in Europe, even milk chocolate contains 30% cocoa (more flavonoids so more health benefits). But in the United States, standards only require 15% cocoa for a solid to qualify as dark chocolate.

How Much Dark Chocolate?

In the research, the range of chocolate provided to derive health benefits was from 6.3 grams to 28 grams - so less than one ounce (28.5 grams equal one ounce). It was a small amount of dark chocolate, enjoyed slowly and without weight gain.

Why is Portion Size of Chocolate so Important?

Health benefits have been seen with measured amounts of chocolate. More is not better! Calories and saturated fat count. So if you eat it slowly, a small portion of about one ounce of chocolate should satisfy your taste buds without increasing your waistline.

What to Do?

  • Choose dark chocolate or cocoa
  • Cocoa or chocolate should be listed as the first ingredient
  • Look for darker chocolate made with at least 60% cocoa bean content or “cacao”
  • Use cocoa powder because it's fat free
  • Keep portion to one ounce per day or less
  • Be sure to include in your daily food intake a variety of antioxidant-rich foods:
    • Fruits
    • Vegetables
    • Whole grains
    • Unsalted nuts

In summary, the take home from this research needs to not be an “eat all you want” message. The research participants were able to enjoy just once of dark chocolate per day. If chocolate in the house “talks” to you, then enjoy it only as a special treat. Spend time with fruits and veggies instead!

Schedule an appointment with a CHI Health Registered Dietitian today to learn more about healthy eating.

Original post date: February, 2012. Revised: February, 2022

CHI Health Food and Nutrition Services Team
CHI Health Food and Nutrition Services Team

These blogs are written by members of the CHI Health Nutrition Services team.

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