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10 Ways to Make Your Chocolate Habit Healthier

Some chocolates can actually reduce your heart disease risk

spinner image Dark chocolate, fresh strawberries, nuts on a dark background
TanyaLovus / Getty Images

If you’re going to give your heart to someone this Valentine’s Day, why not make it a healthy one? Replace that junky chocolate with a version that can boost cardiovascular health.

The cacao bean — which is what chocolate is made from — is high in heart-healthy flavonols and antioxidants, says Lauren Manaker, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, South Carolina. In one study, those with hypertension who ate chocolate bars containing 70 percent cacao showed improved blood vessel flexibility. And a 2017 review of 35 studies found that regular consumption of cocoa lowered blood pressure by about 4 points in people who already had high blood pressure.

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For a snack you can eat every day, switch to dark chocolate bars, keep portions small and read the labels carefully. Here are 10 tips to help you choose the healthiest chocolate bars.

1. Pay attention to ingredients

This is the number one thing to pay attention to on a chocolate label. As with any food, fewer ingredients is usually better. True chocolate is made with only cacao beans, cocoa solids and sugar, says Kim Hack, owner of Cocoa + Co., a chocolate café in Chicago.

2. Look for at least 70 percent cocoa or cacao

The higher the percentage, the less sugar the chocolate contains. A bar that’s 70 percent cocoa or cacao (the terms are often used interchangeably on labels) will have 30 percent sugar, whereas a bar with 85 percent will contain about 15 percent sugar. Dark chocolate contains at least 50 percent cacao, has a more pronounced chocolate flavor and is a beneficial source of heart-healthy flavanols and antioxidants from the cacao, Manaker says. Milk chocolate — anything with 49 percent or less cacao — contains milk solids and additional sugar, resulting in a sweeter taste. White chocolate, despite its name, doesn’t contain any cacao, and is essentially sugar, milk solids and cocoa butter. If a bar is not labeled with a percentage, that’s a red flag that it’s probably packed with sugar. Avoid chocolate with ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colors or flavors.

Studies show a bar with 70 percent cacao offers optimal health benefits, and 85 percent dark chocolate has mood-boosting qualities, according to a 2022 study. Go for the highest percentage you’ll actually enjoy, though — eating chocolate should be fun.

3. Be aware of good — and bad — additions

Add-ins like nuts, which contain healthy fats, can contribute nutritional benefits to your chocolate. But flavors like caramel, while delicious, add extra sugar and not much else.

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4. Opt for lower sugar

The lower, the better; aim for 8 grams or less per ounce, says Manaker. Bars sweetened with honey, coconut sugar, agave or dates are OK, but those sweeteners still contain calories and elevate your blood sugar. If you have diabetes, look for options made with sugar alternatives such as stevia.

5. Seek out higher fiber

Chocolate by itself isn’t a fantastic source of fiber, which supports gut health and promotes satiety. However, dark chocolate tends to have more fiber than milk chocolate, and it’s possible to find options that have 2 grams of fiber per ounce.

6. Pay attention to serving sizes

Tempting as it may be to devour an entire bar, the nutrition facts may apply to just a few squares, so eat an appropriate portion. Ideally, stick to 1 to 2 ounces per day, says Manaker.

7. Know the buzzwords

Lots of brands are making chocolate marketed as dairy free, but these brands aren’t any healthier, unless you have a dairy allergy. Remember, dark chocolate won’t contain any dairy to begin with, says Hack. “Organic” is another buzzword, but don’t assume that a chocolate bar without the word “organic” on its label is not grown organically, says Hack. Many small growers in remote regions cannot afford the certification.

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8. Consider the origin of your chocolate

Chocolate, like wine, reflects the terroir where it’s grown. A chocolate’s origin will impact the flavor. For instance, chocolate from Madagascar will have citrusy notes; from Venezuela, it may taste of red fruit; Belize, of fudge; and Ecuador, of slightly floral flavors, says Hack. There’s great variation within regions, however.

9. Learn to love dark chocolate

Not a dark chocolate fan? You can train your palate to love it, Hack says. Sit down at a table and eliminate distractions so you can focus. Start with a small bite of dark chocolate, letting it melt on your tongue and coat your mouth. Pay attention to what you’re tasting, identifying the flavor notes before taking another bite. You’ll find that it takes less dark chocolate than milk chocolate to make you feel satisfied. That’s because dark chocolate doesn’t trigger the same reward systems in the brain as chocolate that has more sugar, Hack says.

10. Go beyond the bar

If bars don’t excite your taste buds, try dark chocolate in another form, Manaker says. You can reap the benefits of cacao by using unsweetened cocoa powder in your smoothies or coffee, or adding cocoa nibs to yogurt bowls.

As long as you follow a nutrient-dense, balanced diet overall, a treat now and then is good for the soul — and that can include milk or white chocolate, too. “While these don’t offer as many health benefits as dark options do, they can be enjoyed along with other good-for-you foods, like chocolate-covered strawberries,” says Manaker.

spinner image pieces broken off of a few different kinds of chocolate bars stacked on a table
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5 Chocolate Bars to Try

1. Best for: Candy bar lovers

Unreal Dark Chocolate Caramel Peanut Nougat Bars

These bars will curb a craving for a chocolate bar with a little more oomph, thanks to decadent-tasting additions like creamy caramel and crunchy peanuts. Manaker likes how these bars are portable and pre-portioned (but won’t leave you feeling deprived) and have 40 percent less sugar than an actual Snickers.

Nutrition per 19-gram serving (1 bar): 4.5g total fat (1.5g saturated), 11g carbs, 1g fiber, 6g added sugar; 2g protein

2. Best for: Anyone with a “salt tooth”

Hu Salty Dark Chocolate

The touch of savory sea salt in this 70 percent organic cacao bar enhances the sweetness without requiring a ton of sugar. Just be mindful of a proper portion size (half a bar), advises Manaker, as eating an entire bar will give you a whopping 28 grams of fat.

Nutrition per 30-gram serving (1/2 bar): 14g total fat (8g saturated), 14g carbs, 3g fiber, 6g added sugar, 3g protein

3. Best for: Super-dark-chocolate fans

Pascha Very Dark

Made from 85 percent cacao, this bar is also free of nuts, dairy, wheat and gluten, allowing it to fit into many different diets, says Manaker. The ingredients are sustainably sourced, if that’s important to you. Note that Pascha Very Dark is more bitter tasting than other options (due to the high cacao percentage), so it’s not for everyone.

Nutrition per 27-gram serving (1/3 bar): 12g total fat (8g saturated), 10g carbs, 3g fiber, 4g added sugar, 3g protein

4. Best for: People who carry chocolate in their purse or backpack

Ghirardelli Intense Dark Twilight

Since this chocolate comes in individually wrapped squares, portion control is easier — and eating two pieces provides more than 10 percent of the recommended daily intake of fiber, says Manaker. With 72 percent cacao, it’s also a great source of antioxidants.

Nutrition per 25-gram serving (2 squares): 11g total fat (7g saturated), 11g carbs, 3g fiber, 6g added sugar, 2g protein

5. Best for: Aficionados who are satisfied with a small bite

Lake Champlain 80 Percent Cocoa Dark Chocolate

Made by a family-owned company based in Vermont, this slightly tart bar has notes of spice and vanilla. It is also free of additives and milk, making it a good choice for vegans, and boasts all organic ingredients.

Nutrition per 32-gram serving (about 1/3 bar): 15g total fat (9g saturated), 16g carbs, 4g fiber, 6g added sugar, 3g protein

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