Going Cuckoo Over Cacao (Or Why Posh Chocolate Isn’t A Superfood)

By Angela Dowden — Apr 01, 2021
Chocolate is a staple in any Easter basket, but don’t fall for the rhetoric that the fancy-pants high cocoa (cacao!) stuff is a lot healthier.
Image by suju-foto from Pixabay

Are you a chocolate connoisseur who won’t touch a cocoa content of less than 70 percent, or do you prefer your candy milky and sweet?

Bully for you if you’re in the former category, but spare us the spiel that you’re treating your body like a temple while the rest of us deserve diabetes and death for scoffing Hershey Kisses or M&Ms.

Food snobbery of any type is unattractive, but it gains an unpleasant extra edge when it teeters over into health zealotry.

Besides, the idea that one type of chocolate is a “superfood” while another is “junk food” is as daft as they come. Here are the three commonest assertions made by chocolate health snobs (and why you should ignore them and enjoy the chocolate you like the most this Easter):

CLAIM Dark chocolate is best as it’s so high in antioxidants

The reality:

It's true that cocoa beans are high in flavanol antioxidants, which have been linked with cognitive function, lower blood pressure, and improved insulin resistance. It is also true that darker chocolate would logically be a richer source of flavanols than milk chocolate as it has more actual cocoa in it. 

However, when cocoa beans are roasted - which makes the chocolate taste nice as well as destroying fungus and bacteria that might otherwise make you ill — flavanol levels are depleted. This means there’s no guarantee that a chocolate bar is still a good source.

Given chocolate also comes along with a pile of calories, fat, and variable amounts of sugar, you’d be much better off getting your flavanols from foods such as apples, grapes, berries, and black and green tea, which also have ample amounts.

CLAIM “Cacao” is better than cocoa

The reality:

Before chocolate became the latest superfood, the convention was simply that cacao referred to the tree, pods, and beans, while cocoa was the product made from the fermented and roasted beans. 

But more recently, “cacao” has been hijacked as a term to infer “healthier” chocolate, with no justification whatsoever. Occasionally manufacturers may use “cacao” to highlight that the cocoa beans have not been roasted (which might mean a smidge more flavanols but comes with other risks outlined above). Just as often though, it’s used randomly on extra dark and ridiculously expensive chocolate to try to make you think it is something superior. 

The bottom line is that cacao is just cocoa with a vowel switcheroo.

CLAIM: Milk chocolate is just far too sugary

The reality:

Yes, milk chocolate generally has more sugar than types with 70 percent-plus cocoa, but the sweeter stuff is generally lower in saturated fat and calories. In a 4 block (31g) serving of Hershey’s milk chocolate, you get 15g added sugars and 6g saturated fat along with 150 calories. A similar size portion of Ghirardelli “86% Cacao Midnight Reverie” chocolate has only 3g of sugar but 10g of saturated fat and 170 calories.

This means if it’s your waistline you are worried about, milk chocolate actually has a slight edge. Unlike high cocoa dark chocolate, milk chocolate is also a very good source of calcium. In fact, weight for weight, milk chocolate is around 50 percent higher in calcium, important for bone health, than actual milk, according to the USDA’s nutrition database

The bittersweet truth? Chocolate never was and never will be a “health” food. It’s a treat, so this Easter, just go with the type you love to eat – most ideally in moderation (the difficult bit)!


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