Coffee, tea, and chocolate — the top hot drinks that keep us cozy in winter. We dug into the research on coffee and tea and learned that both of these plant-based drinks have some health benefits, as long as you don’t load them up with sugar and fat.
What about chocolate? You can drink coffee and tea without adding anything, but we don’t brew up cacao beans and water. The flavor we know and love as chocolate requires sugar and fat. So chocolate might be harder to get in a healthful form.
We’ve tracked down the answers for you.
Is chocolate nutritious?
Cacao beans are roasted, fermented, dried, and ground, much as coffee beans and tea leaves are. At this point, 100 grams of the powder contains 37 grams of fiber, 19.6 grams of protein, 13.7 grams of fat, and just 1.75 grams of sugar.
That is much more nutritious than an equal amount of coffee or tea. The cocoa powder at this point contains phenolic antioxidants just as coffee and tea do, and it also has lots of minerals.
However, we’re talking about a little less than one cup of cocoa powder. You’re not going to eat it with a spoon. You could pour hot water over it as you do with coffee or tea, but it won’t taste like chocolate, and you probably won’t enjoy it.
Early chocolate drinkers did enjoy something like this. The Aztecs added spices and later the Europeans added sugar. Add milk and you have modern drinking chocolate: hot cocoa. One cup of hot chocolate made from a powdered mix provides 6 grams of fat, 9 grams of protein, 2.5 grams of fiber, and some minerals. It’s still much more nutritious than black coffee or tea, which contain no calories at all.
But it also has 24 grams of sugar — twice as much as the new recommendations for adult sugar consumption in one day. And that’s before you even start thinking about marshmallows.
Finally, most cocoa powders (for baking) and pretty much all hot chocolate mixes are highly processed foods with no antioxidants and few minerals left.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that people figured out how to make chocolate in solid form. A bar of 70% dark chocolate is about as close to eating plain chocolate as most of us could enjoy. Four squares of dark chocolate provide 19 grams of fat, 3 grams each of protein and fiber, and 12 grams of sugar. That’s just a little bit more than the daily sugar limit for an adult.
That dark chocolate also contains iron, magnesium, iron, potassium, and zinc. What’s more, the fat that naturally occurs in chocolate is a healthy fat similar to olive oil. Four squares might be too much, but one or two squares a day is a fairly nutritious snack.
Dark chocolate is not a bad choice for a treat, but research from Mintel says that only 35% of Americans prefer dark chocolate. More than half like milk chocolate, which may have about 10% chocolate instead of 70%. Traditional American milk chocolate bars (the same quantity as the dark chocolate) contain 14 grams of fat, 3.8 grams of protein, 1 gram of fiber, and 17 grams of sugar. The protein is a little higher because of the milk added to the chocolate, but the minerals and antioxidants are much lower. Basically, much of the chocolate has been replaced by sugar.
Typical chocolate candy is more like candy with chocolate in it as a flavoring. The FDA allows American chocolate to have as little as 10% cacao and still call itself chocolate. Words like “chocolaty” mean there is less than 10% actual chocolate in the product.
So, just as with coffee and tea, chocolate taken from the plant and processed just enough to drink has some health benefits. That’s just not how we usually consume it. When you think about chocolate, think whether it’s more like a cup of black coffee or more like a tall caramel frappuccino with whipped cream.
Read the labels before you pick your chocolate snack, and balance special treats with healthy unprocessed foods.