When people move to a plant-based diet to get healthier or shed a few pounds, the first thing they usually cut out is sugar. But if you’ve stumbled across headlines saying dark chocolate is healthy you may be wondering is chocolate off the table, too? Here’s the verdict.
Many people depend on chocolate for their afternoon pick-me-up, and it works! Temporarily. Chocolate contains small quantities of caffeine, which makes you feel awake and energetic. But lots of chocolate, especially milk and white chocolate varieties, are high in sugar, which can actually sabotage your energy shortly after that initial boost.
How much sugar are we talking about? A lot. One bar of milk chocolate has an average of 24 grams of sugar and 13 grams of fat. So when it comes to afternoon munching, your best bet is to look for something with sustained energy release and less sugar and fat, like a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts.
Want to lose weight? Keep milk chocolate at an arm’s length, too. Too much refined sugar is associated with chronic inflammation and obesity, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that daily chocolate consumption is associated with significant weight gain long term.
But hold on; all is not lost on the snacking front...
The good news is that dark chocolate has a higher amount of cocoa solids, making it a better choice than milk chocolate (which isn’t plant-based, by the way). The bad news is that dark chocolate is still laden with sugar and saturated fat so “healthy” may be a stretch and if weight loss and inflammation are concerns, you definitely want to be mindful of how much chocolate you're consuming, dark or otherwise.
So why is dark chocolate touted by some as a healthy choice? Well, it's better than milk chocolate and because of the higher amount of cocoa solids, there are some health benefits of dark chocolate.
Cocoa beans contain naturally occurring polyphenols, known to help reduce blood pressure and improve blood flow to the brain. Polyphenols have antioxidant properties, which can reduce inflammation.
Dark chocolate, normally containing a minimum of 70% cocoa solids, has been known to have important health benefits for the normal function of your heart.
And the flavanols in cocoa also may help reduce stress (though remember that refined sugar can dampen your mood and increase anxiety).
Compared to milk chocolate, dark chocolate’s got three times more antioxidants and slightly less sugar. Moreover, it seems that the milk in the milk chocolate can actually counteract the benefits of cocoa. Studies shows within an hour of consuming dark chocolate, there is a spike in the antioxidant levels in the bloodstream; with milk chocolate, no spike was observed. The milk inhibits the antioxidant activity of the chocolate and the absorption of phytonutrients.
When those chocolate cravings hit, natural cocoa powder is your best best. Natural cocoa powder has 90% cocoa solids, and is high in those healthy polyphenols and phytonutrients. Not to mention, cocoa powder has the benefits of dark chocolate, minus the saturated fat. Just a teaspoon of natural cocoa powder can give a boost in arterial function.
The healthiest way to enjoy cocoa powder?
Add it to a vegan smoothie with greens, like this Chocolate Peanut Butter Shake.
It is more filling than, say, a candy bar, and it’s packed with healthy nutrients, plus it’s got just the right amount of cocoa powder to satisfy your sweet craving.
For the most part, you may want to avoid chocolate products that contain added sugar, milk products, and additives — especially if weight and inflammation are concerns.
While the “dark chocolate is healthy” camp may be misleading to consumers, if you want to have dark chocolate as a treat from time to time, you do you! But know that chocolate isn’t exactly a health food.
Rafaela Michailidou is a Vegan Lifestyle Coach, and a freelance health and wellness content writer, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.