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In recent years, things have been looking good for chocolate fans. Long considered an unhealthy junk food, this much loved product has been re-building its reputation, thanks to mounting evidence that connects chocolate to a myriad of health benefits.  While this news has been welcomed with open arms (and mouths) by many, it’s important to look at the big picture when considering chocolate as part of a healthy diet.

Chocolate contains high levels of antioxidants, which are believed to have powerful anti-cancer properties. It is particularly high in magnesium, and contains several other minerals, such as iron, calcium and zinc. Studies have linked various compounds found in chocolate with a reduced risk of heart disease, improved memory, increased metabolism, and decreased stress levels. With several raw and minimally processed cocoa products now on the market, the reputation of chocolate has gone from “sinful” to “superfood.”

Unfortunately, some of the hype about chocolate could be reflected in the old saying, “people love to hear good news about their bad habits.” A huge number of people have now heard that dark chocolate is ‘good for you’,  but have absolutely no idea why. The reasons behind its health benefits become secondary; the words “chocolate” and “good for you” are pretty much all some people need to hear! This is where part of the problem lies. The fact that cocoa has healthful properties does not make all chocolate products inherently healthy, or mean that it’s a good idea to consume them in abundance. Certain components of chocolate are health-promoting, but most of these can be found in other plant foods that have few to no adverse health effects. Among chocolate’s negative qualities are high levels of saturated fat (mostly in bars), the effect of several of its components on kidney function, and the possibility of mood enhancing substances in chocolate making it addictive. A bigger part of the problem are the added sugars and fats found in chocolate bars, which subtract far more nutritional value than they add.

So what are we telling you, then? To stop eating chocolate? Definitely not! If you do want to enjoy chocolate as part of a healthy diet, however, it’s good to have some guidelines in place.

Less is more. You are far more likely obtain benefits from chocolate when you eat it in smaller amounts. Have some cocoa in a smoothie, or a few small squares of dark chocolate, rather than devouring multiple bars in a single sitting. This way you can enjoy the pleasures of chocolate, but not at the expense of your health (or waistline!)

Make the most of chocolate’s health benefits with raw products. Raw, unprocessed chocolate is likely to contain higher levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals than processed products. Unlike most chocolate bars, raw chocolate nibs and powders don’t contain added oils and sugars. Their natural bitterness can be balanced in fruit-sweetened recipes like this mint chocolate chip shake and these amazing raw chocolate molten lava cakes; or you can try making your own raw chocolate treats!

Choose chocolate bars with a high percentage of cocoa, and as few other ingredients as possible. Aside from cow’s milk and refined sugar, many processed chocolate bars contain unhealthy added fats, artificial flavors and genetically modified soy. Try to find bars that use natural sweeteners and minimally processed ingredients, and be on the look out for sneaky animal-based additions like whey powder and butterfat. Organic Nectars and Gnosis make fantastic raw chocolate bars, while Theo and Alter Eco offer more “traditional style” dark chocolate bars that are both organic and fair-trade.

Try to avoid late night chocolate indulgences. This may prove difficult for some! But it’s important to remember that chocolate contains caffeine. Although the level of caffeine is generally much lower than that of tea or coffee, eating chocolate late at night can still affect your ability to get to sleep, and the quality of your sleep in general. Chocolate also contains theobromine. Though somewhat milder than caffeine, theobromine is a stimulant that raises the heart rate, and can also increase your need to go to the bathroom (not really helpful when you’re trying to get to sleep!) Once sugar is added to the equation, well- you get the idea! A good night’s rest will definitely trump a chocolate bar in terms of its contribution to health.

Alternate with carob. When you’re making desserts, try using carob powder or carob chips once in a while, instead of chocolate.  Carob is rich in vitamins and minerals, does not contain caffeine, and has lower levels of theobromine- making it a good option for those who are sensitive to chocolate’s stimulating properties. Carob is also naturally sweeter and lower in fat that cocoa powder. It has a deliciously earthy, malt-chocolaty flavor, but it may take some getting used to if you’re an avid chocolate fan! If you’re not crazy about carob, try a mixture of half cocoa and half carob in your recipes instead.

Make choices that are good for the health of others. When purchasing chocolate, consider the health of the planet and the health of those involved in the manufacturing process, as well as your own. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are commonly used to grow conventional cocoa beans, and chemical residues often remain present in the harvested product. Organic chocolate is grown without either, making it a better choice for you, the environment, and for the health of cocoa farm workers. It’s also important to look for ethically sourced or Fair Trade chocolate, as cocoa farming is frequently associated with child slavery and illegal labor practices. You can learn more about the ethical implications of chocolate in this article.

If all this talk of chocolate is making you hungry, don’t go anywhere else- we’ve got the best vegan chocolate recipes for you right here!

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons