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The Ultimate Chocolate Shopping Guide

Last year’s “ultimate olive oil guide” was so well received that I thought it deserved a bigger and better sequel.

While everyone else this year will be talking about the Mayan calendar, we’ll be over in this corner talking about something the Mayans ever-so-intelligently loved, worshipped, and cherished like gold: chocolate.

My view of chocolate is undoubtedly passionate, yet objective. I don’t think of it as a magical elixir or a  — groan — “super” food. It is, however, very healthful.

Sadly, a lot of chocolate out there — and I’m talking all sorts of price ranges here — is harmful to your health, the environment, and the well-being of farmers.

I guarantee that after reading this post, you’ll never shop for chocolate the same way again.

BUT FIRST: GOOD CHOCOLATE IS GOOD FOR YOU

No, it isn’t “too good to be true”. It’s a fact. Notice that I didn’t say “chocolate is good for you”, but that good chocolate is good for you. I’ll tell you what I mean by “good chocolate” a little later, but first I want you to know what makes good chocolate healthful.

The three main fats in cocoa butter are: oleic acid, stearic acid, and palmitic acid.

  1. Oleic acid is a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat (the same one in olive oil!).
  2. Stearic acid is a saturated fat that the body converts to oleic acid.
  3. Palmitic acid has been shown to slightly increase HDL (healthy) cholesterol.

Cocoa is also rich in minerals like magnesium and copper, as well as antioxidants and flavonoids (healthful compounds that are neither vitamins or minerals).

Oh, and good chocolate also offers something the average American doesn’t get enough of: fiber.

Now do you see why I often tell people that one of the best things they can do for their heart is to cap off their dinner with two squares of a good quality, dark (80% or higher cocoa content) chocolate? P.S.: For an especially decadent and heart-healthy treat, add one or two teaspoons of your favorite nut or seed butter between two squares of dark chocolate.

If, by the way, you find it difficult to limit yourself to a small amount of dark chocolate every day, you can still include cocoa in other ways, like adding minimally processed or nibs to oatmeal or smoothies.

WHAT IS “GOOD CHOCOLATE”?

As with any other food, you need to think as whole, minimally processed, and close to nature as possible. In the same way that an organic apple and an apple Pop-Tart have very little in common, the same goes for, say, raw cacao nibs and a Crunch bar.

Here are criteria that make for good chocolate; mind you, they all need to be met.

  • A cocoa percentage of at least 70 percent (ideally: 80 percent or higher). The higher the cocoa content of a chocolate bar, the higher the flavonoid content and — more importantly — the lower the sugar content. Cocoa should always be listed before sugar. Unsweetened cacao nibs, raw cacao powder, and unsweetened cocoa powder are considered 100% cocoa. Neat factoid: chocolates with cocoa percentages of 70 or higher are dairy-free.
  • Organic. Cocoa beans have some of the highest pesticide loads of any crop. Even more troubling, due to weak regulations in cocoa-producing countries, pesticides banned in the United States are commonly used in conventional cocoa farming.
  • Fair trade. Fair trade certifications are relatively new and come bundled with a few controversies, but they are a sign that farmers are being paid fair wages — and that is a good thing.
  • Slave-free. Forced child labor in cocoa farms is rampant in countries like Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast). While you won’t necessarily see seals of slave-free certification, the ‘fair trade’ label is usually synonymous with it. For further confirmation, this list and this handy scorecard let you know what companies make slave-free chocolate.  Interesting tidbit: I don’t know of any Ivory-Coast derived chocolate that is slave-free.

WHAT ISN’T “GOOD CHOCOLATE”?

The idea is to get as much minimally processed cocoa in your chocolate as possible. Once added sugars, milk, dyes, artificial flavors, and waxes jump into the mix, cocoa is crowded out.

Good chocolate is not alkalized (also known as “Dutch-treated”). It’s not that alkalized chocolate is “bad” for you, but rather that alkalized cocoa contains an extremely low percentage of those healthful flavonoids and antioxidants I mentioned earlier. Take a look at well-known chocolate candies and you will see “alkalized cocoa” as an ingredient in almost every single one.

Chocolate that is not organic or fair trade is also less than desirable from an environmental and human rights standpoint. We can’t be perfect shoppers all the time, but we can be aware and informed when we make choices, and understand the implications those choices have.

INGREDIENT LISTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES

Here is the ingredient list for a 3 Musketeers bar:

Milk Chocolate (Sugar, Chocolate, Cocoa Butter, Skim Milk, Lactose, Milkfat, Soy Lecithin), Sugar, Corn Syrup, Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil And/or Palm Oil, Less Than 2% – Cocoa Powder Processed With Alkali, Salt, Egg Whites, Artificial And Natural Flavors.

Let’s break down why this is far from the type of “good” chocolate that is chock full of health benefits.

  1. The first ingredient is “milk chocolate”, which can contain as little as 10 percent cocoa, and, at most, is composed of 40 percent cocoa. Notice how the first ingredient in the milk chocolate is sugar.
  2. There is additional sugar and corn syrup added to the rest of the bar. Sugar is a cardiovascular horror, and Americans eat roughly three times the recommended daily limit.
  3. This bar also contains hydrogenated oils. Anytime you see a processing modifier before an oil (i.e.: refined, interesterified, hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, etc.), pass.
  4. Another whammy: the added-on cocoa powder is alkalized, meaning all those great flavonoids and antioxidants are gone.

Chocolate is food, so stick to the usual guidelines: keep it simple, real, and whole. Now, go savor and enjoy.

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10 Comments

  1. Matt said on January 4th, 2012

    Great post, Andy…very interesting and informative. Can you recommend any specific brands that meet the criteria for being good chocolate? Also, you mention having a couple of squares after dinner…is this a regular thing for you? Thanks again and keep up the great work!

  2. Kate said on January 4th, 2012

    Awesome article. My only question is how would you rank the health factors? What would you see as more important when you’re faced with choices – percentage of cocoa, or where cocoa shows up on the ingredient list, etc?

    My current dark chocolate of choice is Green & Black’s Hazelnut & Currant. Only 60% cocoa, but sugar only shows up once on the ingredient list (AFTER cocoa) and it has hazlenuts and currants in it. So I’m trying to compare health benefits of eating that versus something with a higher cocoa content.

  3. Andy Bellatti said on January 5th, 2012

    Kate,

    The percentage of cocoa is the best thing to go by. I have never seen an 80 percent cocoa bar where sugar was the first ingredient.

    The chocolate bar you mention sounds alright. One other good thing to keep in mind is to get no more than 4 or 5 grams of sugar in 2 squares of chocolate. For instance, if the serving size is half of a bar (and let’s say that serving consists of to 6 squares), then you want no more than 12 grams of sugar in that serving.

  4. Andy Bellatti said on January 5th, 2012

    Matt,

    Thanks; glad you enjoyed the post. In terms of specific brands, please click the links that appear with the “slave-free” bullet point; plenty of names there. The truth is there are many brands that fit, which is why I wanted to make a general post that can come in handy when faced with endless options. Some brands that come to mind, though, are Endangered Species, Theo, and Chocolove.

    I don’t necessarily have squares of chocolate after dinner, but I do have cacao on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s some cacao nibs on my oatmeal; other days it is a raw vegan macaroon made with raw cacao powder; other days it is two squares of a 91% cacao bar I love (made by Theo).

  5. Nour Zibdeh said on January 5th, 2012

    Great summary. I finished my MS research last month and it was on chocolate. Agree with everything you say. Dark chocolate (more than 70%) is an acquired taste–some might find it bitter. But I still encourage people to try it. Happy chocolate eating!

  6. Debbie T said on January 6th, 2012

    Thank you! I’ve been buying Green & Black because I can get it on sale, and yeah, it looks like it’s really not a good choice. In my heart, I know that cheap doesn’t always equal better when it comes to food!

    I’ll be making better choices from now on. Thank you for the list!

    @Kate, just a suggestion. Buy 70%-80% plain dark chocolate and eat it with nuts, raisins, etc. I take a bite of chocolate at the same time as a couple of peanuts or cashews, etc and it all blends together like a yummy chocolate bar!

  7. Sherry C. said on January 9th, 2012

    Do you have list of good quality cholate to buy (70% and up)?

    I have been buying 70 Lindt choclate and Valrhona 70% and
    Callebaut Extra Bitter 70% Cocoa solids.

  8. Andy Bellatti said on January 9th, 2012

    Sherry,

    I didn’t want to provide lists because there are so many good brands out there (ones I still am constantly discovering). This is why I instead opted to give guidelines, so that you can make decisions based on the brands available to you.

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