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The Light and Dark of Chocolate

Chocolate, Nutrition


Being a Nutritionist, many people feel very guilty when they talk to me about how much they love chocolate.  People are pleasantly surprised to hear that I also LOVE chocolate – the darker the better! Clients are also surprised to hear that I eat dark chocolate or more often raw cacao every day as a prescriptive health food, and by the end of reading this post you will know why.


What is chocolate?
Chocolate is made from roasted and ground cacao [kuh-kah-oh] beans which are actually seeds from the cacao tree. Theobroma cacao is an evergreen tree native to the deep tropical region of the Americas.  The scientific name, Theobroma, means “food of the deities”.  Cacao originated in the Americas, but today Western Africa produces almost two-thirds of the world’s cacao.  This is where Trinitario cacao is grown, which is the most popular type of cacao followed by Forestero and lastly Criollo which is grown in Central and South America for less than 5% of the world’s supply.

After fermentation, cacao beans are dried, cleaned, and roasted. The shell is removed to produce cacao nibs, which are then ground into cocoa [ko ko] mass, pure chocolate in rough form. Because the cocoa mass is usually liquefied before being molded into other products like bars and chips, with or without other ingredients, it is called chocolate liquor. The liquor also may be processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. You may see many of these terms as ingredients on the label of your chocolate chips or chocolate bar.

Types of Chocolate

Chocolate liquor is blended with cocoa butter and sugar in varying quantities to make different types of chocolate. Here are the basic blends of ingredients for the various types of chocolate. 

  • Dark chocolate – cocoa liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, and sometimes vanilla
  • Milk chocolate – sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa liquor, milk or milk powder, and vanilla
  • White chocolate – sugar, cocoa butter, milk or milk powder, and vanilla

Usually an emulsifying agent, such as soy lecithin, is added, though a few manufacturers prefer to exclude this ingredient for purity reasons and to remain GMO-free.  Sunflower lecithin is becoming more popular for this reason and also due to the increase in people choosing to avoid soy food products since it is one of the top eight common allergens.

The Light
White Chocolate                                  0% cacao        ≥ 12% milk solids
Milk Chocolate                                    ≥ 10% 

The Dark
Sweet Chocolate                                 ≥ 15% cacao
Semisweet Chocolate or                     ≥ 35% cacao
Bittersweet (Dark) Chocolate            ≥ 60% cacao
Unsweetened (Baking) Chocolate      >100% cacao and no added sugar
Raw Chocolate                                    >75% cacao and unprocessed
Cocoa Nibs                                          100% cacao
Cocoa Powder                                     100% cacao

*The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the naming and ingredients of cocoa products.

Why Eat Chocolate – Health Benefits  (the light)

Cacao contains more than 300 nutrients including carbohydrates, fat, protein, copper, fiber, calcium, zinc, and is an exceptionally rich source of magnesium and sulfur.  It is also one of the highest sources or iron from plants. 

Magnesium is a great for relaxing muscles, easing cramping during times of menstruation and helps alleviate stress.  Iron is required for energy metabolism and helps carry oxygen via hemoglobin in the blood.  It also helps with liver detoxification, synthesis of DNA, and building collagen in our skin.  Sulfur is great for healthy skin, hair and nails, supports detoxification occurring in the liver and healthy functioning of the pancreas.

Raw cacao is also high in flavonoids, a family of antioxidants that protects cells from the harmful effects of free radicals.  But once the pods are heated or processed, they lose some of this antioxidant capacity measure as an ORAC value.  You can see this in the difference in the ORAC value of cacao powder versus processed cocoa powder. The ORAC value of raw cacao powder is 95,500 and cocoa powder has an ORAC value of 26,000.   Antioxidants have been shown to provide a protective effect to our body’s individual cells by preventing oxidation by free radicals.  This helps prevent cancer and other chronic diseases.

Research supports other positive effects of eating dark chocolate containing high amounts of cacao like reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and lowering blood pressure in both overweight and normal weight adults.

Caution  (the dark)

Unconstrained consumption of large quantities of any energy-rich food like chocolate, without increase in exercise increases the risk of obesity. Chocolate is high in fat and many types like milk chocolate and white chocolate are high in sugars and milk which can and to the caloric content.

Chocolate and cocoa also contain moderate to high amounts of oxalates which can cause some health concerns particularly for individuals at risk for kidney stones.

In some folks, chocolate can also exacerbate heartburn symptoms because of one of its constituents, theobromine, relaxes the esophageal sphinctermuscle, hence permitting stomach acidic contents to enter into the esophagus.

After weighing in on the pros and cons of eating chocolate, the benefits of eating dark chocolate outweigh the possible risks if chocolate or raw cacao is eaten in moderation.  That said, most healthcare practitioners will recommend no more than a 1oz square of dark chocolate (≥80% cacao) or 1-2 Tbsp raw cacao per day.

5 Ways to Enjoy Eating More Cacao & Dark Chocolate
1.  Add raw cacao powder to your smoothie or protein shake
2.  Spread almond butter on apple slices and top with raw cacao nibs
3.  Enjoy a healthy mole sauce made with dark chocolate on your chicken at dinner
4.  Stir raw cacao powder and raw almond butter into your hot morning oatmeal and top with blueberries
5. Make a chocolate pudding with chia seeds, raw cacao powder and your favorite non-dairy milk.  Top with strawberries.

Angela’s Favorite Picks

  • Navitas Naturals Raw Cacao Powder
  • Navitas Naturals Raw Cacao Nibs
  • Endangered Species Dark Chocolate Bar with 88% Cocoa
  • Guittard Bittersweet Chocolate Baking Bar
  • Enjoy Life Dark Chocolate Morsels (great for folks with allergies)

Here is my latest dark chocolate creation just in time to give to your sweetie for Valentine’s Day.
Chocolate Covered Apricots & Pistachios
I also found Navitas Naturals website a fantastic source of recipes using raw cacao and cacao nibs.  

Now you should be enlightened to know that going to the “dark” side when it comes to chocolate is a good thing for your health.  The darker the chocolate, the higher percentage of cacao, and the increased nutritional benefit of minerals and antioxidants. And if you choose raw cacao, the cancer protective antioxidants and flavonoids content is even higher.

So I encourage you to try a few of the recipes mentioned in this blog to eat more cacao.  Choose recipes  that don’t also have a lot of added sugars to reap maximum nutritional benefits for better health.

Look for more healthy and delicious recipes made with dark chocolate and raw cacao (and a whole bunch) more on my website at www.vitalandwell.com.



School Lunches
Whole Foods


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About the Author

Angela is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), board-certified health coach and trained yoga teacher who helps clients achieve a healthy weight and gain control over their GI distress.

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