Chocolate: Junk Food or Superfood? (+ 5 healthy chocolate recipes)

With Valentine’s Day this Sunday, we are all thinking two things: love and chocolate.  Oh, chocolate, what would we do without you to make everything more decadent, rich and luxurious?  Plus, who doesn’t love the health claims that chocolate is actually good for us?

Chocolate Brownie Cupcakes with Chocolate Avocado Frosting [click image for recipe]

Chocolate Brownie Cupcakes with Chocolate Avocado Frosting [click image for recipe]

Indeed, years of nutrition research has shown that chocolate isn’t just junk food and may actually provide health benefits. But is all chocolate created equal? Is cacao powder the same as cocoa powder? Is Dutch-processed cocoa just as healthy as regular? How dark does chocolate really need to be to be considered healthy? And what’s the deal with those “superfood” cacao nibs? With chocolate coming in so many different forms, it is difficult to know what benefit we are getting and at what cost.

Ooey Gooey Brownies

Ooey Gooey Brownies [click on image for recipe]

The health benefits of chocolate come from antioxidants called flavanols found in the cocoa solids (as opposed to the cocoa butter). When consumed in large amounts, studies have shown that flavanols in chocolate may:

– Lower high blood pressure and decrease levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol leading to decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke
– Promote lung health and protect against asthma
– Decrease the risk of diabetes and several types of cancer
– Benefit the brain and preserve cognitive abilities to lower the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease
– Improve mood and feelings of pleasure
– Benefit the vascular system by reducing the risk of blood clots and increasing blood flow in arteries and the heart

Still, many chocolate varieties contain unhealthy additives such as milkfat and sugar.

And different types of chocolate have varying amounts of flavanols, making some varieties more beneficial than others. As much as 90 percent of the flavanols may be lost when processing the cocoa bean into cocoa powder and chocolate. The cocoa beans are fermented to reduce bitterness and roasted to bring out the chocolate flavor and aroma. So, although the processing of chocolate makes it taste better, the nutritional downside is that it reduces the final flavanol content.

Like most foods, eating the least processed and most pure form is the healthiest. When you start to dilute the food with added sugar and unhealthy fats, the overall health of the food is reduced.

Fudgy Sunflower Crispies

Fudgy Sunflower Crispies [click on image for recipe]


Dark chocolate (also known as “bittersweet” or “semisweet” chocolate) has a rich and intense flavor. It contains more than 60 percent cocoa solids and typically has less added sugar than milk chocolate. Dark chocolate provides a number of important minerals including calcium, magnesium and potassium. Compared with milk chocolate, you are getting more cacao solids and thus more flavanols.  In fact with dark chocolate you are getting more than 6 times the amount of flavanols than with milk chocolate.  Flavanols provide a dark pigment, so visually you can look for darker color for more nutritional benefits. The label will also tell you what percentage of cacao it contains. Usually, the greater percentage the better.

You want to look for dark chocolate made from cocoa butter instead of palm and coconut oils. And look on the label to be sure it is made without the use of “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils, which can negatively impact cholesterol.

Sugar content: The sugar content of dark chocolate varies depending on the percentage of cocoa solids:
-Dark chocolate with 70-85 percent cacao solids contains 6.80 grams per ounce
-Dark chocolate with 60-69 percent cacao solids contains 10.41 grams per ounce

Chocolate manufacturers are making dark chocolate varieties of many of their candies. Just be sure to pay attention to the nutrition label and review the ingredients list and the sugar content. For example, one ounce of Dove Dark Chocolate contains over 13 grams of sugar per ounce, which is much higher than most dark chocolate varieties.

Uses: Dark chocolate is mostly eaten plain, but you can also bake with dark chocolate chips. Melted dark chocolate can be used as a fruit dip or mixed with nuts and set in the refrigerator for dark chocolate bark.


Milk chocolate is required to contain at least 10 percent cocoa solids.  Meaning the other 90% of the weight of milk chocolate comes from cocoa butter, added sugars, cream, butter, milk, milkfat, spices, artificial or natural flavors, nuts, coffee, cereal or salt. So not only is it a tiny amount but it has also been processed so the flavanols are pretty minimal.
Sugar content: 14.62 grams per ounce

Uses: Milk chocolate can be used in the same ways as dark chocolate, but considering its high sugar content and low flavanol content, it should be enjoyed in moderation.


White chocolate is the least nutritious of the bunch. It is made from cocoa butter and mixed with milk solids, sugar and typicallyvanilla flavor. It does not contain any cocoa solids, meaning no flavanols are present and therefore is not a good source of antioxidants or health benefits.

Sugar content: 16.77 grams per ounce

Uses: White chocolate can be enjoyed in moderation as a sweet treat. Oftentimes it is melted and drizzled on top of desserts.


Unsweetened cocoa powder is made by roasting and grinding cocoa beans, and that processing lowers its flavanol content.  It contains only cocoa solids (whereas chocolate contains cocoa solids plus cocoa butter and other additives). Always double-check the ingredients to make sure it doesn’t contain added sugar, cocoa butter or milkfat.

Many recipes call for Dutch-processed cocoa powder which is cocoa powder that has been alkalized to remove the bitter taste.  This actually substantially reduces the flavanols (about 65% of the flavanol content is lost).

Sugar content: 0.5 grams per ounce

Uses: Unsweetened cocoa powder adds decadent chocolate flavor to baked goods, smoothies or drinks without loads of added sugar. It is a staple in most kitchens and used for homemade hot chocolate, fudge pops, chocolate pudding and many baked goods.


Cacao powder is similar to unsweetened cocoa powder in that it does not contain added sugars, butter, milk or additives. It is said to be different from cocoa powder in the way it is processed, preserving more flavanols. Manufacturers of cacao powder say they use low-temperature processing to preserve the enzymes and nutrients.

Sugar content: Zero

Uses: Cacao powder can be used in place of cocoa powder in a one-to-one ratio.


Cacao nibs are 100 percent pure cacao and said to be the least processed form of chocolate.  Cacao nibs are prepared by removing the shell from cured, cleaned, dried, and cracked cacao beans. The result is a hard, crunchy and tiny nib.  Each one is unique in shape and fairly jagged.  They are a bit larger than a lentil and smaller than a coffee bean.  With cacao nibs you are getting more flavanols than overly processed chocolate bars that contain additives such as sugar, cream, milkfat or milk. Although cacao nibs taste intense and slightly bitter as opposed to sweet, they allow you to enjoy chocolate flavor while providing antioxidants, dietary fiber, protein, iron and magnesium.
Sugar content: Zero

Uses: Although bitter and quite crunchy, cacao nibs can be used in many ways, including straight out of the bag:
– Add a tablespoon to your smoothie
– Sprinkle on top of smoothies, oatmeal or yogurt
– Bake with them in place of chocolate chips
– Place them on top of celery with nut or seed butter for a fun “ants on a log” snack
– Add to homemade granola or trail mix in place of chocolate chips

Sugar comparisons by type of chocolate

Type of Chocolate

Amount of sugar in grams per ounce

Raw Cacao Nibs


Cacao Powder


Unsweetened Cocoa Powder


Dark Chocolate (70-85% cacao solids)


Dark Chocolate (60-69% cacao solids)


Milk Chocolate


White Chocolate



Almond Butter Cup Smoothie

Almond Butter Cup Smoothie with Cacao Nibs [click on image for recipe]

Purple Haze Smoothie [click on image for recipe]

Purple Haze Smoothie [click on image for recipe]

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