Think it's a coincidence that National Chocolate Day is October 28th and Halloween — the holiday that's practically just as much about sweets as it is about costumes — is just two days later? Possibly, but either way with these two treat-focused days in the pipeline, there are likely a ton of opportunities to indulge coming your way. However, if you're trying to be a bit more mindful about your sugar intake these days, it's reasonable to resist the temptation to some of the traditional candies — but there might still be an option for you chocoholics. Now a few nutritionists are responding to commonly asked question: Is healthy chocolate a thing? And if so, what's the best way to enjoy it?
You've probably heard talk of how chocolate is "good" for you (more antioxidants, aphrodisiac effects) almost as much you've heard that it's "bad" for you (causes acne, makes you hyperactive), so you may be a bit unsure about what's fact and what's fiction when it comes to the beloved sweet. And chocolate — or at least its superfood star, cacao — is showing up all over wellness products (including so-called healthy alternatives to junk food) making promises to give you glowing skin, a more blissed-out mood, and even better sleep.
But according to top nutritionists, you should take those claims with a major grain of salt — or sugar, in this case. "There is so much confusion around chocolate these days," says Los Angeles-based nutritionist Elissa Goodman, who specializes in treating symptoms of and preventing cancer through food. "Some people only think of it as candy and others swear it is a superfood. Chocolate is the most craved food. It is the most addictive because of the sugar, fat, texture, high calories, and psychoactive compounds, including caffeine, theobromine, and many others."
Goodman also adds that one of the most misunderstood aspects of chocolate is how often your favorite treats have hidden harmful substances — even some that you probably thought were healthy. "Chocolate contains moderate to high levels of oxalates, which are plant compounds that are considered anti-nutrients," says Goodman. "It can also contain mold toxins, and, to many people’s surprise, dark chocolate has the highest concentration of those toxins. Phytic acid is another anti-nutrient often found in chocolate, which can make it hard for us to digest."
And Caitlin Self of Frugal Nutrition explains how and where your chocolate is made could be a huge factor in how good for you it actually may be. "Lots of chocolate products on the market are highly processed chocolate products — and not actually real chocolate," she says. Thankfully, both nutritionists have a few suggestions for what to look for if you don't want to totally abandon your favorite treat. "When you’re looking for a way to indulge in real chocolate, look for high quality brands that have sustainable practices — they’re more likely to use only traditional methods and real food ingredients," Self explains. "Avoid ingredients like PGPR, artificial flavor, and soy emulsifiers. Look for chocolate with just cacao beans, sugar, and cocoa butter as the base, with recognizable flavor add-ins like fruit, sea salt, nuts, and coconut."
According to Goodman, you can optimize the legitimate benefits of chocolate by looking for a few key words. "Raw, organic, 100 percent cacao is rich in flavonoids with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, magnesium and iron," she says, adding that less than 100 percent means a higher amount of sugar or sweeteners. "Opt for fair trade chocolate whenever possible: Some of the largest candy companies utilize extremely unethical practices like child slave labor and rainforest demolition."
You can also make your own sweets based on that advice (look for raw, fair trade cacao powder or baking chocolate) and give it an added health boost with other superfoods like adaptogens or other healthy fats, as Self recommends. "Maca is a delicious superfood that has a sweet malt-like flavor and can be added to hot chocolate, mocha, or baked goods for an extra nutrition and energy boost," she says. "Chocolate combinations like chocolate hummus, chocolate ghee, or chocolate nut butters can be a more balanced way to enjoy your favorite treat thanks to the added fiber, protein, and fat, which all combat blood sugar spikes!"
All that considered, you're ready to mindfully indulge in chocolate this season. To stock up, check out the following goods that are super high in cacao, low in sugar, and sustainably sourced.