Do you like chocolate and want to make your own? Here’s everything you need to know about delicious healthy chocolate, how to identify and appreciate it, and how to make healthy homemade chocolate.
I often get asked if chocolate is or isn’t healthy, or how much chocolate should we eat in a day? And each time people seem to be surprised by my simple answer to this simple question. They realize that what I call “chocolate” and what they call “chocolate” are two different things.
Let me explain what I mean by this.
For me, chocolate refers to a chocolate of at least 85% purity (so pretty dark). It has to be made using true cacao ingredients, as unrefined as possible, without preservatives or additives, and ideally using only organic ingredients. On the other hand, for most people chocolate means that sweet chocolate with a lot of sugar, milk, soy and some cocoa.
Unfortunately, this is the result of endless marketing and a constant hunger for profit, without respect for healthy choices. Let’s see how you can recognize great quality chocolate and how to avoid “cheap” substitutes, even if the price says otherwise.
Your favorite chocolate might not be healthy
Here’s a breakdown of all the unhealthy ingredients that I usually find when reading the ingredients list for chocolate. This applies to most chocolate including chocolate bars, candy boxes, even brand chocolate or handmade chocolate has these ingredients. As you’re about to find out from this section, most of these ingredients have nothing in common with cacao or chocolate.
My advice: always read the labels!
Milk — milk is a substitute for real chocolate ingredients, like cacao mass or cacao butter. It is used as a filler with the single purpose of replacing cacao (especially cacao butter) while making the “chocolate” creamy and pleasant to consume.
Soy — like milk, soy is there to substitute the true chocolate ingredients, namely cacao butter. Soy is used as a filler meant to increase the texture of the product or it can also be used as emulsifier and preservative. Companies use it because it’s very cheap and gets the job done without effort.
Natural Sugars — maybe the biggest health enemy in chocolate is sugar. The list includes raw sugar, regular table sugar, sugar alcohols and even fructose – these are the most common sugars used in chocolate and other desserts. Specific products include high fructose corn syrup (hfcs), fructose, xylitol, erythritol or other so-called “natural” sugars. Besides the negative health effects associated with all forms of sugar, adding it to chocolate has 2 roles: it’s cheap and that’s always good for business, but it’s also a drug so you’ll end-up wanting to eat more chocolate overall.
Artificial Sweeteners (Sugar-Free) — unless 100% dark chocolate, sugar-free always means the producer used one or more artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners include: saccharine, acesulfame K, aspartame, sucralose and stevia (since it’s a calorie dense sweetener). Besides the fact that artificial sweeteners are made in a lab, they’re also linked to various chronic conditions, from leaky gut and microbiome related issues, to dementia.
Note: I believe there is enough evidence against using all artificial sweeteners. As you’ll discover in this article, there are far better alternatives out there.
Preservatives and Additives — these are mainly used to extend shelf life, nothing more. Besides being linked to various health issues, adding preservatives into chocolate tells me that the final product is made with unhealthy and unnatural ingredients that didn’t belong there in the first place. Preservatives and additives are a big no-no for me, in any product of any kind.
The list is pretty long and can include things like artificial colors, artificial flavors, food preservatives, high fructose corn syrup (refined sugar, MSG (monosodium glutamate), soy lecithin (emulsifier and preservative), trans fats (replaces cacao butter), carrageenan (preservative), etc. All these additives are produced in a factory and have nothing in common with chocolate.
Nuts — most of the nuts used are of the lowest quality (mostly peanuts), they’re not organic and they are not prepared correctly (eg: soaked to remove anti-nutrients that come with all nuts and seeds). On top of everything, they’re mixed with sugar to add “more flavor” to the final product. And because they’re not pre-soaked, they’re usually very hard to chew, hence being bad for one’s teeth.
A recipe for healthy chocolate
Enough with the bad stuff, let’s look at quality options and practical solutions towards identifying true chocolate. Real chocolate has to have great flavor, great taste and has to be prepared using only quality ingredients.
Here’s how I define quality chocolate:
- to be at least 80% cacao (70% chocolate also works but it’s not the best choice).
- to be made with cacao mass, cacao butter and a natural sweetener (not sugar).
- no milk, soy, preservatives or additives of any kind.
- can have spices, usually vanilla and cinnamon, or even mint, chili or pepper.
- can contain nuts or seeds, but they have to be used in a healthy way.
- can contain extra virgin coconut oil and/or butter (especially if done at home).
- can contain a limited quantity of natural sweetener (far less compared to cacao mass or cacao butter).
- if possible, all the ingredients should come from organic sources.
- if ingredients come from small farms (eg: fair-trade) that’s even better.
My advice: pay more for a healthier chocolate.
True cacao comes with beneficial fatty acids, phytonutrients (flavonoids), some vitamins (mainly B vitamins and vitamin E) and minerals (mainly magnesium, but also calcium, sulfur, zinc, iron, copper, potassium, and manganese). Although you’ll not be able to get enough vitamins and minerals from your daily intake of cacao, it’s nice to know they are there.
It’s worth mentioning that many promising studies are showing different health benefits associated with raw cacao. As long as you consume raw cacao from organic sources, as long as that cacao is only processed at low temperatures, the health benefits of cacao are very real.
For example, cacao mass is one of the purest forms of cacao, it’s loaded with antioxidants, it comes almost unprocessed and usually from organic sources. If you try it, you sort of feel that distinct smell and the bitter taste of pure cacao beans. Actually, all the wonderful things obtained from cacao beans are the result of a fermentation process. Isn’t that interesting?
Quick Tip: Keep in mind that fermentation equals healthy.
Healthy homemade chocolate ingredients
Here’s a quick breakdown of all the ingredients that you should look for in your chocolate. I use these same ingredients to make my own homemade chocolate (see my recipe below). For now let’s discuss them one by one and see why they work great for every kind of chocolate.
Cacao mass — also called “cacao liquor” is produced directly from cacao beans and it contains both cacao solids and cacao butter. Cacao mass is the main ingredient of every true chocolate. It’s rock solid at room temperature, so using more of it will solidify your chocolate faster, keeping it solid for a longer time. It has a dark brown color and a very bitter taste.
Cacao butter — cacao butter is the fattiest part of cacao beans. Its purpose is to add flavor to your recipe as well as a soft and creamy texture. It has a white to yellow color and creamy fatty texture. Like cacao mass, cacao butter is solid at room temperature but still sort of creamy from all the fat that it contains.
Sweetener — I don’t like regular table sugar or a similar alternative (see the section above where I discuss all the “bad” ingredients), I like my chocolate with organic coconut sugar instead (and very little of it). Coconut sugar has a far superior taste, and it’s not refined as regular sugar. You can skip it if you like true dark chocolate but I find that using just a bit of coconut sugar will add a different flavor to my chocolate. Personally I use very little coconut sugar because I like to feel the taste of real cacao instead.
Vanilla and Cinnamon — I use them both as they add a subtle flavor to my chocolate. I always make sure to use organic spices since this will increase the flavor of my chocolate, plus organic spices are more potent when it comes to their associated health benefits.
Nuts and seeds — You can skip them or add as many as you like. Ideally, prior to using nuts and seeds in your dessert, they should be properly soaked in salty water for at least 6 hours and dried in the oven at very low heat (50-60 degrees Celsius) for about 30–60 minutes. This process removes most of the anti-nutrients that come with many of the nuts and seeds, plus it makes them easier to chew.
Coconut oil and/or plain butter — These are often present in homemade chocolate, they’re also very common in low-carb or keto chocolate recipes. Coconut oil comes with healthy fats, flavor and helps with the creamy texture of your chocolate. For vegan recipes, you can just skip the butter or replace it with coconut oil instead.
Extras — You can get very creative here by adding things like chopped dates, figs, raisins and even coconut chips. The whole “let’s make our own chocolate” idea is about creativity and what better way to be creative than to play with the ingredients.
Cacao vs Cocoa?
In my journey of discovering true chocolate, I’ve often noticed that when people refer to cacao powder or cacao solids, two different terms are used interchangeably: cacao and cocoa (natural and dutch processed).
The confusion comes from the fact that “cacao” and “cocoa” are used interchangeably without actually understanding their true meaning. Long story short, there is 1 type of cacao powder and 2 different types of cocoa powder.
- Raw Cacao Powder is obtained by cold-pressing unroasted cacao beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cacao and removes the fat (called cacao butter). You can easily recognize it by its lighter color and bitter taste.
- Natural Cocoa Powder is obtained from the same cacao beans but using an industrial method that generates a lot of heat. This process reduces the enzymes and the antioxidants level, lowering its overall nutritional value. Because of this processing, cocoa is an inferior quality product when compared to cacao.
- Dutch-processed Cocoa Powder is cocoa powder that was processed even more, this time with an alkaline solution. This process makes it less acidic and much richer in taste, but also lowers its nutritional value. The final product is darker and doesn’t have the bitter taste of pure raw cacao. This is the so-called “baking cocoa/cacao” and its nutritional value is lower even when compared to natural cacao powder.
Homemade chocolate to the rescue
Making your own chocolate will put you in control of the ingredients used or the way they’re combined together. You decide the taste or texture, making it exactly as you like it. Knowing what you know now, I’m confident that you can prepare better chocolate compared to most chocolate you’ll find in stores.
In case you’re still not convinced, I’ve put together a “Why you should be making your own chocolate?” section below.
- easy to make — making homemade chocolate is easier than putting together a tasty sandwich. Do I have your attention now?
- it’s healthier — using organic and/or raw ingredients will enhance the health benefits of your chocolate.
- it’s cheaper — you end-up paying less even when making it using organic ingredients (which are more expensive).
- no sugar added. — you control if and how much sweetener you add to your chocolate.
- no hidden stuff — you are in control of the ingredients, no need to use any of the bad stuff (flavor enhancers, emulsifiers, additives, preservatives, artificial colors, etc).
- it’s a lot of fun — you can prepare it together with your family (hint: it’s a very fun activity for kids).
- guaranteed 100% vegan — if you don’t like milk in your chocolate, this is the safest way to go.
- add your own extras — want to go one step further? get creative with dried fruit, nuts, seeds or coconut chips.
Recipes for Low-Carb Chocolate
I’ve put together a short list with a few of my homemade chocolate recipes. The best homemade chocolate always starts with the best cacao mass and cacao butter, and adding things like extra virgin coconut oil, nuts and seeds, dried fruits, a bit of coconut sugar or even a bit of raw butter. Let’s not forget those wonderful spices like vanilla, cinnamon or cardamom. The possibilities are endless!
If you’re feeling creative, you could also toss in some mint, pepper, even chili, turmeric or ginger. As long as you’ll be using the best cacao ingredients, you can’t go wrong with homemade chocolate.
Here are a few of my favorite recipes for low-carb chocolate:
I don’t know about you but I like my chocolate with a hot cup of coffee, some tea or served with my favorite homemade almond milk. How about you?
How do you feel about homemade chocolate? Have you made your own chocolate in the past? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
- Mark’s Daily Apple, The Definitive Guide to Sugar
- Mark’s Daily Apple, On the Question of Sweeteners
- Mark’s Daily Apple, Artificial Sweeteners May Leave You Absolutely Gutted
- Nourish My Life, Raw Cacao vs Cocoa
- Wikipedia, Chocolate Liquor
- One Green Planet, Cacao vs Cocoa: What you need to know
- Food Matters, Raw Cacao vs Cocoa: What’s The Difference?
- Paleo Hacks, Cacao vs Cocoa: The Difference and Why It Matters
- Mark’s Daily Apple, The definitive guide to chocolate
- Natural News, Examining the Properties of Chocolate and Cacao for Health
- Organifi, 10 Raw Cacao and Cocoa Benefits