Is Dark Chocolate Paleo?

dark-chocolate-199x300.jpgMmmm….chocolate. Who doesn’t love it? (Ok I know there are a few of you out there…who I will never quite understand…) But seriously the question “is chocolate Paleo, and if so, what types are allowed on the diet” is one of the most FAQs  when people first start down the Paleo path. We’ve written previously about chocolate and the Paleo diet, discussing some of the advantages and disadvantages of its consumption. But let’s cut to the chase…is chocolate Paleo or not!? Although chocolate is not Paleo in the sense that our cavemen ancestors weren’t eating it by the bar, dark chocolate  is allowed in moderation on the Paleo diet, in part due to the numerous health benefits that have been correlated with the cacao component of chocolate. For those of you who are going to take this good news and run with it (to the store…to buy some chocolate right now)….here’s a good rule of thumb to keep in mind: the darker the chocolate (the higher the % cacao), the better.

Nutritional Value of Pure 85% Dark Chocolate

The nutritional information given here is for Theo brand Pure 85% Dark Chocolate, which happens to be one of my favorites. This organic dark chocolate is fair trade and doesn’t contain any soy lecithin, preservatives, or other non-Paleo ingredients. In fact its only ingredients are cocoa beans, sugar, and ground vanilla bean.

Serving size: 1 Bar (this is definitely not implying that you should eat an entire bar in one serving..a square or two will do!)

  • Calories: 420
  • Total Fat: 38 g
  • Saturated Fat: 22 g
  • Polyunsaturated Fat: 0 g
  • Monounsaturated Fat: 0 g
  • Trans Fat: 0 g
  • Cholesterol: 0 mg
  • Sodium: 0 mg
  • Total carbohydrate: 34 g
  • Dietary Fiber: 10 g
  • Sugars: 14 g
  • Protein: 8 g
  • Vitamin A: 0 %
  • Vitamin C: 0 %
  • Calcium: 0%
  • Iron: 16%

Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

Dark (sometimes called semisweet) chocolate can be made up of various ingredients, but generally contains cacao (cocoa) beans, cocoa butter, sugar, and an emulsifier. The difference between cacao and cocoa, is that ‘cocoa’ is what they call the cacao bean after it has been processed (fermented, dried, shelled, roasted, and ground). Cacao beans are technically the seeds that grow within the cacao pod…and the pod is actually a fruit that grows on the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). Because it is a seed, cacao contains an abundance of nutrients including the minerals copper, iron, magnesium, and manganese (to name a few) as well as a fair amount of dietary fiber, both insoluble and soluble. The nutrient-dense cacao seed (AKA cocoa bean) is 10-15% protein by weight, and a source of the essential amino acid tryptophan. Cocoa butter (derived from the fatty portion of the cacao seed) is a great source of saturated and monounsaturated fats, and contains few unfavorable polyunsaturated fats.

As you may have heard, dark chocolate has some unique health benefits which come from the cacao (cocoa) portion of the chocolate. The majority of research and media focus has been on the antioxidants contained in chocolate, such as the polyphenols, including the flavanoids (flavanols). In fact, dark chocolate is thought to contain the highest concentration of antioxidants of any other food, which can constitute up to 18% of the total weight of the cacao seed!

Human studies have demonstrated that moderate dark chocolate consumption reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease  and stroke, improves insulin sensitivity, reduces blood pressure, and can reduce both total and LDL cholesterol. The flavanols in cacao are anti-inflammatory, immune-modulating, memory-improving, and can even reverse age-related memory decline. Other studies suggest that the antioxidants and fiber in dark chocolate can benefit our healthy gut bacteria (and overall digestion) by acting as a ‘prebiotic’ food. The health benefits of dark chocolate keep going, but I’m going to stop here so that we can move onto discussing where you can get your hands on some antioxidant-rich, Paleo-friendly dark chocolate.

Where to Buy Dark Chocolate

Since the research points to the antioxidant polyphenols as the main health-promoting compounds in dark chocolate, and considering that these flavanols are contained within the cacao (cocoa) portion of chocolate, it stands to reason that we should be consuming chocolate with as high of a cacao content as possible. While dark chocolate can range from 50-100% cacao, we want to select the highest % cacao that we find palatable, definitely above 70%, and  ideally above 85%. Think of it this way: as the cacao % goes up, the sugar % goes down. If you’ve ever accidentally taken a bite of some unsweetened bakers chocolate (100% cacao) thinking that it was regular ol’ chocolate, your taste buds were probably greeted by a bitter surprise!

Even though it’s not supposed to contain milk by definition, some manufacturers sneak dairy into their dark chocolate, so make sure that you read the ingredient lists carefully. Many brands also contain soy as an emulsifier, and although the small amount of soy lecithin in dark chocolate may not be problematic to many, you’re probably better off just finding a brand that doesn’t contain soy of any sort. Also be on the lookout for other non-Paleo ingredients, like hidden sources of gluten and grains, corn syrup, vegetable oils, preservatives, colorings, artificial flavorings, and pretty much any ingredient that you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce. It’s also best to avoid alkalized cocoa powder, which may be labeled as “dutch-processed” or “processed with alkalii.” Dutch-processed cocoa powder has been treated with chemicals to remove the bitter flavor of natural cocoa, which ends up also removing up to 90% of the flavanol antioxidants. Instead, choose a non-alkaline, natural cocoa powder to use in your cooking.

Many higher-end grocery stores and health food stores carry quality dark chocolate, free of weird ingredients. Some reputable brands include Theo, Taza, Green & Blacks, Equal Exchange, Alter Eco , and Trader Joes also carries a couple decent options at a decent price. The “primal dark chocolate company” Eating Evolved  makes some seriously amazing dark chocolate products, and you gotta love giving your dollars to fellow Paleo peeps! Whether you’re seeking out a Mexican chocolate, a drinking chocolate, coconutty dark chocolate, chocolate chips, an unsweetened baking bar, or some straight-up 100% cacao powder, with a little research and label-reading, there are actually quite a few Paleo-friendly options available out there. However, some of the best dark chocolate around might just be found in your own backyard! Ask around at your local farmers market or food co-op to find out who your local chocolatiers are.

Should I Eat Dark Chocolate — Is Dark Chocolate Paleo?

If you look on our food list guide, you’ll see that chocolate falls under the “eat in moderation” category… so we don’t want to overdo it as the calories and sugar can add up quickly. There have been concerns about the anti-nutrients contained in raw cacao, however in most chocolate’s defense…the fermentation of cacao into cocoa does lower the phytate and lectin content. Some people are sensitive to the stimulants (i.e caffeine, theobromine, etc.) in chocolate, and these people may do better avoiding chocolate in the later part of the day or altogether. People who are sensitive to oxalic acid, such as folks suffering from kidney stones, might want to lay low on the chocolate due to its oxalate content.

Another thing to keep in mind if you consider yourself a chocoholic, is that a lot of people who strongly crave chocolate actually have hidden sensitivities to it , and tend to feel better when they minimize or eliminate their exposure. (I know it sounds horrible, but I am one of those chocolate-sensitive people, and it gives me hives if I overdo it). So pay close attention to how your body feels during and after your chocolate indulgences, and as is the case with most everything, don’t consume it every day or otherwise excessively. A tiny square or two is enough to take away a ‘sweet tooth’, it really is! Chocolate can also be a trigger food for some people, and let’s get real, chocolate can be downright addictive, so it’s important to know and enforce our own limits.

To sum this all up, follow these three simple rules for keeping your love of chocolate within the realm of ‘Paleo’:

  1. Read the ingredient list on every product to ensure the chocolate you are purchasing  contains only Paleo-friendly ingredients.
  2. Select the highest % cacao that you find palatable, somewhere in the 70-100% cacao range would be ideal.
  3. Chocoholics….make this your mantra: “A square or two will do!” Treat it like a condiment, and use it sparingly.

How to Make Your Own Dark Chocolate

Now we can take our knowledge of what dark chocolate is (cacao (cocoa) + sugar + fat), and easily create our own dark chocolate indulgences! Our buddy Mark Sisson describes how to make your own coconut cacao milk by heating on the stovetop the following: half a can of full-fat coconut milk with a few tablespoons of cacao powder and sweetener or spices (cinnamon!) to taste. Nom nom Chocolate Truffles are the bomb and contain only dark chocolate, vanilla, and coconut. Phoenix Helix shows us that variety is indeed the spice of life with her flavor-infused chocolates, which were inspired by Coconut Mama’s homemade Coconut Oil Chocolate Bars. As you can see, these recipes are simple variations of the ingredients that constitute dark chocolate. So get creative and have fun finding the ratio of cocoa: sugar: fat that tastes (and feels) best to you.

I think that you will find with time,

your palate will become refined,

and need for sweetness will decline,

and yes I meant for this to rhyme. ;-)


Additional References:

Kinsey JacksonKinsey Jackson

Kinsey Jackson, LMP, MS, CNS® is a clinical nutritionist specializing in functional and evolutionary nutrition. Her own experience of overcoming multiple autoimmune disorders by adopting a Paleo lifestyle vastly contributes to her passion for helping others to also reclaim their health and vitality by making informed dietary decisions.