The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate: What to look for in a good bar + 7 healthy alternatives

April 13, 2017

The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate: What to look for in a good bar + 7 healthy alternatives

By Nutritionist, Samantha Gemmell

Almost everyone loves chocolate. But do you know what is in the chocolate you are eating? Do you know where it comes from, how it's made, and what impact it has? Let us take you through, step by step, to learn what's really in your chocolate bar.

What's In That Bar?

Let's look at the average chocolate bar in the supermarket. We're not going to name and shame – that's not how we roll. But we do want to some common ingredients you'll often find.

An average, unflavoured chocolate block contains (in order):

  • Milk
  • Sugar
  • Cocoa butter
  • Cocoa mass
  • Vegetable fats
  • Emulsifiers (1-2 minimum)
  • 'Flavourings' (unidentified)

Other ingredients in flavoured blocks include:

  • One or more other sugar sources
  • Biscuits or wafers
  • Sweetened condensed milk
  • Glace fruit
  • Sweetened dried fruit
  • Preservatives
  • Colours
  • Flavours
  • Food acids

This is only a very short list of common additions. Some may even contain artificial sweeteners to reduce the sugar content.

The majority of chocolate on the market is filled with sugar. 50-60% sugar is a fairly common figure, although it varies between brand and flavour.

The Ugly Truth

So that's what's really in your chocolate bar. But why is that so bad? Here's a quick overview of the downsides.

Sugar's Health Effects

We could write a whole article on this. But let's keep it simple, shall we? Sugar, when it's in fresh fruit, isn't so bad. Sugar, when it's processed and in everything we eat, is not great for your health.

High sugar intake is associated with:

  • Overweight and obesity
  • Skin issues such as acne
  • Tooth decay and other dental issues
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Digestive disorders
  • Insulin resistance
  • Diabetes (type 2)
  • Chronic diseases of almost every kind

Safe to say, no one wants those things. So understandably, we're concerned about the content of sugar in your everyday chocolate bar.

Cravings

Hands up if you've ever had a sugar craving? I know I have my hand up. It's something we've all experienced before. But if you're a chronic craver, sugar is the last thing you need.

It's all about sugar's impact on the blood sugar levels in your body. When you eat processed sugar, or sugar in high amounts, your blood sugar soars. This makes you feel like you're on a high.

But your body quickly responds by storing away the extra sugars into your fat cells. This gives you a massive low, and leaves you hungry and craving more sugar.

Sugar also feeds the naughty little bacteria and yeasts in your tummy that make you crave sugar more. This can lead to serious issues down the track, such as systemic candida (a horrible yeast infection throughout your body).

Artificial Sweeteners

Ok, so sugar isn't great in large amounts. Some companies get this – so they decide to add artificial sweeteners instead. This gives you a sweet taste without the sugar. Unfortunately, this is no better!

Artificial sweeteners can affect your brain chemistry. It makes your brain think it's had sugar, but your body knows that's wrong. You can end up craving sugar even more. 

They can also upset your tummy if you are sensitive or have digestive issues. Some sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, can give you a tummy ache to almost anyone in a high dose.

Some natural sweeteners aren't so bad. Stevia is a commonly used natural sweetener. But if there's a sweetener that has to be grown in a lab, you're best off skipping it.

Fillers

You know all of those ingredients that you don't really understand? Let's have a look at those.

The reason additives are added vary. They may help preserve the food for longer, change the texture or flavour, change the colour, or help combine ingredients that don't mix so well (think oil and water).

But additives can have downsides. Sure, some are relatively harmless. But some are potentially hazardous to your health.

There are experts out there that can give you more insight into individual additives. But we do recommend you look up what's in them. The list of side effects can be nasty in some cases. Check out this app for an easy way to look them up.

The other thing to consider: the more fillers and other random ingredients, the less chocolate. Who wants less chocolate?

Slavery

Woah, that just got intense. What does slavery have to do with chocolate? This is the 21st century, right? Wrong. Let's have a closer look.

Chocolate doesn't really come from Australia. We're not a huge cocoa producer. The places that are – Africa, South America and the like – are usually poorer countries.

Unfortunately, a lot of companies exploit this fact. They pay very little to people who produce cocoa for their chocolate. But these people have little choice – they either work for a tiny wage that can't support them, or they don't work at all.

Some even have children working in the industry. That's right – child labour and slavery still exist. The last thing you want to do is keep a child enslaved to support your sweet tooth, right? 

What To Look For

So you've found out what's really in your chocolate bar. And you don't love it. But don't worry, there's a few things you can look out for when shopping for your chocolate hit.

High cocoa content

The best way to eat chocolate in all its goodness is for it to have plenty of cocoa or cacao. It gives you all of the antioxidant benefits. It means less room for excess sugar and junk ingredients. And it makes it taste amazing.

Dark chocolate is best, but not all are equal. Look for a listed minimum percentage. Ideally, you want between 70-85% cocoa.

Few ingredients

Wouldn't it be great if your chocolate was actually that – chocolate? Sure, a bit of extra flavour in the form of maybe almonds or cacao nibs is great. But you don't want to fork out money for filler ingredients and random additives.

Try to keep your ingredient list to a minimum. For plain chocolate, you'd want 5 or less ingredients. For others, you want the ingredients to be what the 'flavour' is. So if it's almond, you want almond pieces, not almond extract or almond flavour and almond syrup!

Minimal sugar

You know at least some of the problems sugar can cause now. No one wants to be on the sugar rollercoaster! So keep the sugar to a minimum.

For chocolate, you want 30% or lower. But if it's really low, but still tastes sickeningly sweet, make sure it isn't artificially sweetened.

Fair Trade

Nobody wants chocolate that is unethical. Luckily, there's plenty of options out there now that are fair trade friendly. This means that there are processes in place to ensure that growers of cocoa (and other ingredients) are given a fair wage that sustains their well-being and keeps them from poverty.

The best part is, by giving more to the cocoa producers, you are actively supporting a community. Many fair trade communities have boomed, with the extra funding being put toward community initiatives such as wells, toilets and even health care. How cool is that?

A handy hint: most brands will list on the packaging, or have a logo, to show that they have fair-trade ingredients.

Whilst not all brands and farmers can be certified in fair trade due to cost, many instead trade directly with the farmers and form a close relationship to cut out the middle man, essentially paying higher than fair trade prices. So be sure to do your research and look for either fair trade or direct trade cocoa sourcing.

Our Fave Alternatives

Don't panic! You don't have to live without chocolate forever. But you can make healthier, more sustainable and ethical choices. Here are some of our favourite options.

1. kkäo Co. – Cacao Tea

kkäo Co. Cacao Tea

Some might say we're a little biased here. How can a tea be at the top of a chocolate list?

But when you look at it:

  • Cacao tea has zero added sugar or sweetener
  • It's 100% cocoa/cacao – can't top that
  • It has 1 ingredient (simple is best)
  • It's ethically sourced and fair-trade friendly
  • It does all of this, while still tasting like chocolate

So really… why wouldn't it be our top choice?

2. Alter Eco – Dark Blackout

Alter Eco - Dark Blackout

Photo: @alterecosf

Firstly, they have a pretty cool name for their brand, and their product. But their chocolate also scores pretty well on the scale. Worth a try!

Looking at what's in it:

  • It has one added sugar in the form of cane sugar, with 15% total sugar
  • It has minimum 85% cocoa
  • It has 4 ingredients
  • All of their ingredients are fair-trade 

3. Pana Chocolate – Eighty

Pana Chocolate - Eighty

Photo: @pana_chocolate

Who doesn't love a good dose of Pana? Their chocolate is raw and yummy. But at the same time, it's so nutrient-dense that you can't eat a whole block easily. 

Looking at what's in it:

  • It has one added sugar in the form of agave nectar, with just under 22% total sugar
  • It has a minimum of 80% cacao
  • It has 3 simple ingredients
  • All of their ingredients are fair trade

This adds up to a pretty good option for chocolate!

4. Loving Earth – Dark Chocolate

Loving Earth - Dark

Photo: @loving_earth

One of the most popular brands out there for healthy chocolate fans. This chocolate is almost as simple as it gets. No additives, no fillers, just chocolate – the way it should be.

Looking at what's in it:

  • It has one added sugar in the form of coconut nectar, with 28% total sugar
  • It has 72% cacao
  • It has only 2 ingredients
  • All of their ingredients are fair trade 

5. DIY Chocolate!

Ok, the only reason this isn't higher is because it takes a little more effort than picking up a packet at the market. The easiest way to control what goes into your chocolate is to make your own!

Raw Chocolate - @cookrepublic

Photo: @cookrepublic

RECIPE

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup raw cacao butter
  • 1 cup raw cacao powder
  • 1/4 cup rice malt syrup, honey or coconut sugar
  • Pinch sea salt
  • Optional toppings: chopped nuts, coconut, orange zest, cacao nibs

Method:

  1. Melt the cacao butter in a bowl over simmering water on a very low heat until just melted.
  2. Add the cacao powder, rice malt syrup and salt, mix until well combined.
  3. Pour into chocolate moulds, mini cupcake baking cups or a baking tray lined with baking paper.
  4. Place in the freezer immediately to set.

If you make it according to our recipe, and pick your ingredients well, you're looking at:

  • One added sugar, with about 20% total sugar
  • About 80% cocoa
  • 4 simple ingredients (or more, if you add in some!)
  • Fair-trade ingredients

So why not try making your own? It's fun, and messy – which is the best kind of kitchen fun, really.

Honourable Mentions

These didn't quite make our top 5. But they're definitely an improvement on your average chocolate. So if you want to take baby steps towards a better choice, start here.

6. Organic Times – Dark Chocolate Almonds

Organic Times Dark Chocolate Almonds

Photo: @organictimes

Organic Times is a little higher in sugar than our top picks. But if you want an organic and ethical chocolate that tastes like the stuff in the supermarket, this is your top choice. Just don't eat a box every day!

Looking at what's in it:

  • It has two added sugars in the form of cane sugar, with 31.5% total sugar
  • It has a minimum of 55% cocoa
  • It has 7 ingredients
  • All of their ingredients are fair-trade, organic and/or sustainable.
Organic Times are passionate about providing products that are GMO-free, organic, fair-trade and sustainable. So if you're more concerned about the environmental impact than the sugar content, give them a try.


PS: We've taste tested Organic Times products, and they're pretty darn delicious! 

BSKT – Vegan Chocolate Bar Dark Cocoa

BSKT Wholefoods Chocolate Bar

Photo: @bsktwholefoods

If you like your chocolate ethical, vegan friendly, Paleo friendly.. have a look at this bar.

Looking at what's in it:

  • It has one added sugar in the form of coconut sugar, with just under 30% total sugar
  • It has a minimum of 70% cocoa
  • It has 4 ingredients
  • It doesn't list whether the cocoa is fair-trade or not – we'll try to find out for sure!

Not a bad option for a bar, compared to your average chocolate brand. But we'd like to know if the cocoa is fair-trade!

Now that you know what's really in your chocolate bar, will you make a better choice? Share your favourites with us!



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