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Is Dark Chocolate Actually a Healthy Food? We Asked RDs

You might view dark chocolate as a health food, but is it? Before you bite into that piece of chocolate, understand why dark chocolate may not deserve the health halo it’s been wearing.

Chocolate may not be the nutritional equivalent of kale, but it’s still lauded as a healthy food far and wide because of the antioxidants it contains. And there’s data to suggest that chocolate, dark to be specific, can do a body and brain good. However, before you think this gives you license to scarf dark chocolate mini Milkyways like it’s Halloween, there are caveats.

The Truth About Dark Chocolate and Health Benefits from Scientific Studies

In a study of more than 13,000 people, those who ate dark chocolate daily were 57% less likely to have depressive symptoms than those who didn’t eat chocolate. That adults perform better on cognitive tests if they eat cocoa flavanols (the specific plant nutrients found in chocolate) before the test. And in a follow-up to the Framingham heart study, among 2,800 people over 60, those who ate and drank the most flavonoid-rich foods like dark chocolate also had the lowest risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Still other studies such as one published in the British Medical Journal link regular chocolate-eating among healthy individuals with a lower risk of contracting cardiovascular disease.

Why then would you not eat dark chocolate? It turns out that while dark chocolate may indeed be healthier than, say, a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of chocolate ice cream, there’s a dark side to one of the world’s favorite so-called healthy sweets. Here’s what you need to know so you can make an informed decision about whether you’ll eat chocolate for your health. 

The Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate Compared to White and Milk Chocolate

The main ingredient in dark chocolate is cacao, which is basically the raw form of chocolate. Cacao’s use for improving health dates as far back as 600 B.C., according to a study in Nutrients. Pure cacao is nutrient-dense and contains fiber, minerals, and flavonoids. “All of these can be beneficial to the health of your heart and circulatory system,” says Jessie Shafer, R.D., Colorado-based dietitian.  

Comparing dark chocolate with high percentages of cacao to white and milk chocolate, which contains little to none of this nutrient and you find that milk chocolate and white chocolate not only contains less cacao than dark chocolate, but they also have a lot more sugar, as well as milk products (such as liquid milk, milk powder, or condensed milk), and other ingredients like soy lecithin. “This increases the sugar and fat content but often makes these chocolates more palatable, especially for people who don’t like the bitterness of dark chocolate,” Shafer says.

White chocolate is actually a misnomer. It is considered chocolate by culinary standards, but technically it isn’t chocolate, because it doesn’t contain cacao nibs or cacao powder, Shafer says. Instead, it’s made of cocoa butter, mixed with sugar and milk products.

Is Dark Chocolate Actually Healthy? An Expert’s Take

Whether chocolate should be touted as a “health” food is controversial, according to experts. Although studies suggest that dark chocolate provides some benefits, experts, including those who believe that the healthiest diet is a whole-food, plant-based approach, don’t advocate for dark chocolate.

“Studies might show an association between cocoa flavanols, or chocolate, and a specific health outcome, but the association does not mean causation,” says Rosane Oliveira, Ph.D., a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences at the University of California Davis, and president of the Plant-Based Life Foundation. 

The pro-chocolate studies are also…

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