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Dark Chocolate... It's Healthy Right?

2022 Update: Thanks to input from a reader, I've removed Blommer Black Cocoa Powder as a recommended cocoa powder due to lack of testing and information regarding its cadmium content (though the lead levels remain acceptable). My recommended list of safest chocolate products have also been updated to reflect the most recent tested heavy metal contents. CocoaVia Memory+ for the win!!



Some people call chocolate the food of the gods. Well, I'd say those people are right, ha! Not only is chocolate delicious, it can also be a nutritious element to a balanced diet. But is it everything it's cracked up to be? I explain below.

The nutrients in cocoa as well as antioxidants called flavonoids found in chocolate provide a variety of health benefits such as:

A Better Mood - Cocoa has been shown to reduce stress hormones and contains tryptophan - a necessary precursor to serotonin (your feel-good neurotransmitter), which promotes relaxation and happiness. The health-promoting flavonoids also enhance blood flow in the brain and protect neurons from death which means it can lower your risk of Alzheimer’s and stroke.

A Healthier Heart - Cocoa’s flavonoids help to lower blood pressure and inflammation, reduce cholesterol and improve blood glucose, all of which helps to lower heart disease risk.

Youthful Skin - Dark chocolate intake results in less collagen breakdown in the skin… that means fewer wrinkles with sun damage!

Chocolate is also one of the best sources of iron, magnesium, manganese, and copper and will boost your fiber intake (100g of 70-85% cocoa dark chocolate bar = 11 gams of fiber!).

Will all types of chocolate provide these benefits? That's a big fat NOPE. The health benefits are heavily dependent on the actual cocoa content. Milk chocolate ain’t gonna cut it y’all.

Common Chocolate Products

The most common types of chocolate and/or cocoa-containing products are white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, cacao nibs, and cocoa powder. There's no clear definition between products labeled cacao vs. cocoa, and sometimes it just boils down to which word the company wants to use for marketing and labeling. Healthline helps clear up the confusion here. Chocolate varieties are classified based on the quantities of three ingredients; sugar, cocoa butter and cocoa solids.

  • White chocolate - made of mostly sugar and cocoa butter with no cocoa solids.

  • Milk chocolate - contains mostly milk and sugar with some cocoa solids and butter.

  • Dark chocolate - contains mostly cocoa solids and butter with some added sugar

Cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been fermented, dried, roasted and crushed into pieces. Cocoa powder is formed by grinding cacao nibs and pressing them to remove the fat content. In short, chocolate with the highest percentage of cocoa will provide the most health benefits, whereas chocolate with a low content of cocoa will not be as beneficial. Chocolate products that contain 70% or more cocoa are where its at!

Heavy Metal Concerns

Although dark chocolate contains a variety of health benefits, many brands contain heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. The amount of cadmium and lead found in chocolate products can be traced back to where the cocoa beans were harvested. There are more heavy metals found in products sourced from Latin America than West Africa due to higher volcanic activity. The pH level of the soil in which the cocoa tree is planted also has an effect on the amount of heavy metal concentration; soil with a low pH has been linked to a higher concentration of cadmium in chocolate.

Heavy metals accumulate in body tissues over time and can lead to disastrous health consequences. It is important to limit the amount of heavy metals you are exposed to but chocolate isn’t the only thing to be cautious about. Major sources of heavy metal exposure include cosmetics, especially lipsticks and lipglosses (get the 411 on safer beauty products here), cigarette smoke, contaminated water, welding, working or living around lead-based paint, certain hair dyes, and more. My 6-year old daughter is a girly-girl so I'm stuffing her stocking this Christmas with clean products like this fun Beautycounter lipgloss "jellies" set. She's going to love it! :)

Testing

A non-profit organization that promotes corporate accountability, As You Sow, conducted a study that tested over 120 chocolate products for the amount of lead and cadmium. The results showed that 96 of the 127 chocolate products tested contain lead or cadmium that go above California’s Maximum Allowable Dose Level. Even brands that are typically marketed to be healthy or organic tested positive on some of their products, such as Whole Foods 365 brand. Other popular brands such as Hershey’s, Mars, Godiva, and Ghirardelli also tested positive on some of their products.

Lead

There is no safe blood lead level but the established tolerable intake limit is 250 mcg/day for adults and 90 mcg/day for children. To put this in perspective, the average diet contributes about 114mcg/day of iron in adults and 50mcg/day in children. One of the most contaminated chocolate bars, NOW H