Is Your Chocolate Polluted?

You’ve given up gummy bears, licorice and Doritos, Dr. Pepper and Big Macs. Cookies are off the cards (unless you make a healthy version yourself), as are cakes, sandwiches and pizza.

It seems like the only treat a real-food devotee is left with is chocolate. Ah chocolate, that little indulgence that many of us can’t live without on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, even with this “safe” treat, we must be on our guard for junky ingredients, fake fillers and questionable additives. If you just grab the first package that is labeled “dark chocolate,” you will likely end up with something far from healthy, and potentially even downright dangerous.

We are not trying to put you off chocolate or make you feel like nothing out there is safe to eat. Quite the opposite! Dark chocolate is a wonderful food that has its place in a healthy diet. But it’s important to read labels thoroughly with chocolate just as with any other prepared food.

There are many brands out there producing top-quality chocolate that you can enjoy entirely guilt-free. But how to find it?

Here are six things to look out for next time you’re shopping for a chocolatey treat — avoiding these nasty ingredients will ensure that the chocolate you eat is in line with the effort, expense and sacrifices you go through to stick with a nutritious, real-food diet.

Artificial colors

Look out for codes such as “FD&C Yellow 5” or “Red 40 Lake” — they usually appear at the end of the ingredients list.

While coloring agents in food may seem harmless enough — it’s only a tiny amount right? — there are actually a number of studies linking artificial colors to major health and behavioral problems. Many common colorants are contaminated with a carcinogen called benzidine. In addition, hyperactivity in children, neurological effects, DNA damage and elevated cholesterol have all been tied back to the consumption of artificial colors.

Artificial flavors

Food manufacturers love artificial flavors because they are so much cheaper than the real stuff. Who needs real vanilla beans when synthetic vanillin (also known as 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) tricks consumers into eating the chocolate?

These ingredients are a real cause for concern when you consider that the vast majority of them are made from petroleum. Yes, meaning waste products from the oil and gas industry. No kidding!

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the safety of artificial flavors. The vanillin mentioned above, for example, continues to sit in the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) category despite the fact that it inhibits a certain liver enzyme by 50 percent. Flavoring agents have also been found to affect RNA, thyroid function and the production of other enzymes.

In short, artificial flavors should certainly be avoided, and do not deserve a place in your chocolate!


You might see items such as sodium metabisulfite, sulfur dioxide, TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone), citric acid or potassium sorbate listed in the ingredients. These chemicals are added to extend the shelf life of the product. Wouldn’t you rather buy something fresh which does not need to be chemically preserved?

Fillers, thickeners and texturizers

Since real cocoa, milk and sugar are expensive, many manufacturers bulk up the recipe by adding in fillers and other ingredients which improve the texture of the product. These might be things like wax, gelatin, food gums (such as acacia gum or bean gum), carrageenan, or soy lecithin.

While some of these ingredients may not be particularly dangerous, do you want to be paying good money to eat wax? Probably not!

Some of them are dangerous though. Carrageenan is an additive made from seaweed which has been shown to cause intestinal permeability and colitis. Soy lecithin is usually made from genetically modified soybeans (unless you see “USDA Organic” or “Non-GMO Project” on the label).

High fructose corn syrup and other sugar replacements

Chocolate bars stack isolated on white backgroundTo produce “chocolate” as cheaply as possible, many companies sweeten the product with nasty sugar replacements such as corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar alcohols like maltitol, or even artificial sweeteners like sucralose.

High fructose corn syrup is tied to increased weight gain and obesity, as well as systemic inflammation, which can lead to any number of chronic diseases. The corn used to produce the syrup is almost always genetically modified. Even an ingredient listed as “sugar” can be derived from genetically modified sugar beets. This is another reason to seek out organic, minimally sweetened chocolate.

Trans fats

While good-quality chocolate normally uses cocoa butter for the fat content, many manufacturers substitute palm oil as a cheaper alternative. While red palm fruit oil is becoming more popular as a sustainably-produced healthy tropical fat, most palm oil used by food manufacturers is from the palm kernel. This oil is frequently obtained by clearing vast amounts of rainforest, destroying vital wildlife habitats.

Not only does this oil harm the planet, it harms your body too. The palm oil used in chocolate is often partially or fully hydrogenated. This means the oil has been chemically reacted with a heavy metal to force extra hydrogen atoms to join on to the molecules. These fats are essentially “Frankenfoods” which your body cannot recognize or break down properly. They end up causing inflammation and chronic disease.

Other common hydrogenated oils used in chocolate confectionaries include soybean oil and cottonseed oil.

Even when a label notes “zero grams of trans fats,” check the ingredients list for anything hydrogenated. Manufacturers are allowed to say there is zero trans fat when the food has less than 0.5 grams per serving. They can make the “serving size” small enough so that they don’t have to directly divulge the trans fat content. Unfortunately, a tiny amount of man-made trans fat is enough to cause damage to your body. So avoid these hydrogenated ingredients like the plague!

How to shop for healthy chocolate

Price is often a good indicator of quality, but not always. Some brands that are positioned at the premium “boutique” level still use artificial flavors, hydrogenated oils, corn syrup and artificial colors in their chocolate.

That’s why it’s vital to scour the ingredients list with a critical eye. Luckily, a good bar of chocolate will not have many ingredients at all. You should see only something like the following:

  • Cocoa powder or cocoa solids
  • Cocoa butter
  • Sugar
  • Vanilla (when the source location is identified, i.e., bourbon vanilla from Madagascar, this is a sign of superior quality)

Chocolate liquor is an acceptable ingredient, which you will likely see on many mid-range chocolate bars. This is essentially just cocoa beans ground into a paste.

One to avoid, though, is “Dutch process cocoa.” While this sounds like something fancy and European, it is actually cheap, low-grade cocoa powder mixed with an alkali to reduce excessive sourness. This is a sign of cheap ingredients and also results in lower levels of beneficial flavonoids in the chocolate.

For a healthy treat, choose chocolate with 70 percent or greater cocoa content. Ideally, your chocolate will be fair trade and organic. Knowing that both the people and environment involved in making the chocolate have been well cared for makes it taste all the more delicious.

Now that you’re well-versed in the art of reading chocolate labels, it’s easy to find only the best stuff. Have a treat that you feel good about!

—Liivi Hess

Liivi is an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and is training to become a doula. She inspires women to find peace and personal power by taking control of health and fertility naturally. Liivi‘s passion is ancestral nutrition and primal lifestyle design. She and her partner Will live between Toronto, Canada and Queenstown, New Zealand.


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