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! :)
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.
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 Healthy Foods Certified Organic Cocoa Powder 100 Pure, contains 7.5 mcg per serving. Make sure to multiply that number if you eat more than one serving. Exposure to lead in young children can cause permanent brain and nervous system damage which can lead to a lower IQ, ADHD, and increased antisocial behavior along with other behavioral issues. Lead exposure can also promote increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage in adults, as well as birth defects in pregnant woman.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Food Panel has identified a max tolerable cadmium intake of 2.5mcg/kg of body weight per week. This averages out to about 28 mcg/day for a 175 pound person, or 8mcg/day for a 50 pound child. The highest cadmium-containing chocolate product were:
Newmans Own Organics The Second Generation Super Dark Chocolate Premium Organic Chocolate 70 Cocoa with 40.2mcg/serving
Trader Joes The Dark Chocolate Lovers Chocolate Bar 85 Cacao Tumaco with 26mcg/serving and
Theo Organic Fair Trade Pure 65 Dark Chocolate Goddess of the Harvest with 29mcg/serving
Intaking cadmium can cause many negative health effects, including kidney and bone diseases as well as reproductive harm. Cadmium is classified as a human carcinogen and can lead to increased risks of cancer. EFSA also reports “Cereals and cereals products, vegetables, nuts and pulses, starchy roots and potatoes as well as meat and meat products contribute most to human (cadmium) exposure.”
What Chocolate Products Are Safest?
Of the 31 products that tested low for cadmium and lead, there’s three chocolate bars I would recommend (that are also very rich in flavonols):
Montezuma's Dark Chocolate Absolute Black (100% cocoa) - 0.06mcg cadmium/g (highest flavonol-containing bar)
Endangered Species Natural Dark Chocolate (72% cocoa) - 0.05mcg cadmium/g
Trader Joe’s Pound Plus, 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate (72% cacao) - 0.07mcg cadmium/g
All of these chocolate bars tested negative for cadmium and lead and contain above 70% cacao for maximum health benefits.
Safest cocoa powders are:
Ghiradelli Chocolate Premium Baking Cocoa 100 Unsweetened Cocoa (powder, not the bars)
Hersheys Cocoa Special Dark - 100% Cacao (Special Dark ONLY)
Volupta Cacao Powder - I get this brand from Costco!
Safest chocolate chips:
Guittard Extra Dark Chocolate Baking Chips (63% Cacao) - highest in flavonols of chips tested but still over the Health Canada limit for children.
Healthiest Cocoa Product Overall:
CocoaVia Memory+ - <0.005mcg cadmium/g and 44 times more flavonols than the Montezuma Absolute Black bar!! While lower in flavonols than CocoaVia Memory+, the CocoaVia Dark Chocolate Mix is also an excellent choice that you can mix with any liquid or add to smoothies in place of cocoa powder.
Need some inspiration for a chocolate recipe to obtain all of chocolate’s goodness without the heavy metal concerns? Check out this very versatile dark chocolate bark recipe featuring whatever dried fruits and nuts/seeds that you already have in your pantry. Take this to your next party for lots of oohs and aahs.
Shout out to my nutrition intern Katy for killing it on these bark photos!
Dark Chocolate Superfood Bark
Servings: 16 pieces, approximately 1 oz each
16 oz of your favorite lead/cadmium free dark chocolate (70% cacao or above)
1 tablespoon sweetener of your choice (maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, etc.)
1/2 cup of chopped nuts and seeds (cashews, almonds, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds etc.)
1/2 cup of dried fruit (goji berries, candied ginger, cranberries, cherries, apricots, etc.)
1 handful of coconut flakes
1 teaspoon of sea salt
Cover a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper
In a glass bowl, melt dark chocolate and sweetener together in the microwave for 1 minute. Stir, and then microwave for 30 more seconds, stopping to stir every 10 seconds. Continue increments until mixture is smooth and without lumps.
Spread chocolate evenly over baking sheet.
Sprinkle nuts, seeds, dried fruit, coconut flakes and sea salt over chocolate.
Allow chocolate to cool until hardened (refrigerating helps), about 2 hours.
Once cooled completely and hard, break into pieces using your hand. Serve or store in refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for one month. I dare you to make it last that long. :)
Results will vary depending on the ingredients you choose. I used 16 oz. Trader Joe’s 85% cocoa dark chocolate, 1 Tbsp maple syrup, 1/4 cup almond, 1/4 cup pistachio, 1/2 dried cranberries, 1/4 cup coconut flakes and 1 tsp salt.
Nutrition per 1 oz. = 187 calories, 17g fat, 10g sat fat, 156mg sodium, 13g carbs, 4g fiber, 6g sugar, 2.5g protein, 26mg calcium (2%), 4 mg iron (19%), 229mg potassium (5%).