Healthy Chocolate

Do you know your chocolate?

Cacoa fruit with nuts from Theobroma_cacao tree

Figure 1. Cacoa fruit with nuts from Theobroma_cacao tree

The main ingredient of chocolate is the cacao bean, the nut from the fruit of a tree native to Central and South America [Figure 1]. Recent studies have reported the antioxidant benefits of chocolate for heart health. There are certain phytochemicals (flavanols) found in cacao which show to reduce cell damage in the heart muscle and may improve vascular function [1]. Does that mean all the Easter egg and bunny chocolates that were eaten over the holidays were healthy? NO, unfortunately, the amount of cocoa in a typical chocolate sweet (eg: candy bar or Cadbury egg) is not enough to produce a positive change.

Cacao is the non-fat component of cocoa liquor (finely ground cacao beans) that is used in chocolate making or as cocoa powder (commonly 12% fat) for cooking and drinks [2].  It is bitter. Fat and sugar are the major components of chocolate candy, which is high in calories. This fact needs to be taken into account for health risks such as obesity or diabetes. The benefits of recommending chocolate consumption for health purposes is based on studies on cacao, the active ingredient derived from the plant, is what most scientific studies are focused on when conducting experiments. Therefore, recommendations of “chocolate” are based on % cacao and not the “candy” that we are familiar with in the stores. Of course raw cacao, in its natural form, does not contain any additives or preservatives.

The typical chocolate bar you can buy in a store contains only about 11% cacao. This number is enforced by the United States FDA that states a requirement of a minimum of 10% cacao solids to be called “milk chocolate” [3]. Products from Cadbury®, Kinder® and Milka® contain less.  A Snickers® candy bar is less than 2% cacao. These bars all contain miniscule amounts of cacao and large amounts of sugar and other preservatives.. Dark chocolate should contain 60%. Chocolate, specifically “milk chocolate”, contains more sugar than cacao. It cannot be considered chocolate if sugar is the #1 ingredient. The health implications in eating too much sugar is detrimental for those diagnosed with diabetes and for those who are trying to limit the fats, oils, and sugars from their everyday diet.  Milk chocolate, by definition, is less than 30% chocolate. In milk chocolate candy, the taste is not cacao, but primarily sugar and vanilla. The milk products bind with the antioxidants causing them to be unavailable in the body conferring no health benefits. Flavanols, also found in red wine, are more prevalent in dark chocolate than in milk chocolate, which may help lower blood pressure and improve vascular function. Nogeuira conducted a study showing the benefits of dark chocolate in hypertension patients. The subjects consumed 70% cacao dark chocolate, *50g of cacao/d for 4 weeks and saw significant improvements in reactive hyperemia index, a measurement of vascular flow [4].

*A Hersheys bar weighs 43g.

Upon your next shopping trip, if healthy eating is on the list and you are a self-confessed “chocoholic“.  Please consider purchasing cocoa powder, the cocoa itself, unlike chocolate, is low in sugar and fat while offering potential health benefits. If you enjoy chocolate flavor, consider adding plain cocoa to your low-fat milk or morning oats.


  2. Cooper K.A., Donovan J.L., Waterhouse A.L., Williamson G. Cocoa and health: A decade of research. Br. J. Nutr. 2008;99:1–11.
  4. Nogueira Lde P., et al. Consumption of high-polyphenol dark chocolate improves endothelial function in individuals with stage 1 hypertension and excess body weight. Int J Hypertens. 2012;2012:147321.