Let me start with saying that not all chocolate is created equal.
There is a world of difference nutritionally, environmentally & ethically, so it is high time I wrote a guide to choosing chocolate that will enhance not only your health but have a positive impact on the world too.
And of course, as a specialist gut health nutritionist, I always want to ensure you choose chocolate that is less likely to cause digestive symptoms.
You can see the evidence here of how seriously I take my research 😉.
All recommendations are digestive health-friendly and are gluten-free (this has no place in chocolate anyway), dairy-free and vegan. It is far from an exhaustive list, I have selected a few that I know and like.
Let’s start with the cacao tree, which is native to Central and South America. The tree produces fruit, called a cacao pod. These pods contain 20-60 seeds, commonly known as beans.
Cacao beans are packed with nutrients that are known to enhance your health. They are rich in antioxidants and flavanols (antioxidant compounds which are believed to protect against cell damage). They are a rich source of minerals including magnesium, potassium, iron & zinc. The beans are sun-dried and then exported for manufacturers to use.
It’s at this point, these nutritious beans can go down very different paths and ultimately affect your health in quite different ways:
Pathway #1: Beans get roasted and highly processed (and lose nutrients) with high proportions of fat, sugar, additives such as vegetable fats, emulsifiers, dried milk or milk fats & flavourings added to make mass market chocolate. The final ultra-processed product bears little resemblance to the original cacao bean and often has less than 20% cocoa solids. This is the chocolate to avoid if you really care about your health (harsh but true).
Pathway #2: Beans are minimally processed (and preserve nutrients) and only essential ingredients are added to make a chocolate bar. This is the chocolate to enjoy.
Before I give my recommendations, let me explain…
The 3 parts of the cacao bean
Cacao powder: This is the part that remains when the cocao butter is extracted. It retains nearly all of the original non-fat nutrients, making cacao powder arguably the healthiest form of cacao you can consume.
Cacao v cocoa – what’s the difference?
Cacao powder is the raw highly nutritious form and cocoa powder is a processed form of where it has been subjected to high heat during processing and therefore loses much of its health-promoting antioxidants. Whoever thought just switching round two letters in a word makes such a difference!
Cacao butter: This is the fatty part that is extracted from the cacao bean. It is often added back when making chocolate.
Cacao nibs: These are tiny chips of cacao beans. They are one of the least processed ways to consume cacao, and like cacao powder contain much of the original, health-promoting nutrients.
But chocolate in a solid bar form is high on many people’s list as a real treat and this blog is about brands I recommend depending on your budget. To explain two important factors when choosing chocolate I put the questions to those at the very heart of chocolate making.
Question #1 – What should I look for when buying quality chocolate?
Emma Jackman, founder of Conscious Chocolate who produces hand-made organic raw chocolate says:
“Quality NOT Quantity is what I look for in an ingredient list first and foremost! For me it is key to make sure that the chocolate ingredients are organic and as premium as possible. I look for a minimum list of ingredients – so just the key items like cacao solids and cherries and not a lot of other things to make up the taste. I always look for the sugar source and make sure it is not refined sugars.
Really there is no reason to have anything in the chocolate other than the key ingredients that are shouted out in the name or on the front of the pack. I avoid all ‘flavourings’, emulsifiers, and anything extra. A dark chocolate should be the cacao, the sugar source and then a fruit or nut and that is it, maybe a good salt or spice but really nothing more!”
I am going to add that from a nutritional standpoint, sugar should not be the first ingredient in the bar. And it most certainly should not be the second ingredient as well as the first (often as glucose syrup).
Regarding emulsifiers, commonly added to chocolate bars, I use the analogy that they are like washing up liquid in your gut. They should be consumed with caution for good health but particularly if you have any digestive health issues and most certainly if you have Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
As well as quality ingredients, it’s also important to choose brands who consider our planet and the people in it. Commercial well-known brands have overly-packaged products with foil & plastic (especially as Easter eggs). Regarding the human aspect, child labour and unfairly treated farmers is widespread in the cocoa industry.
Question #2 – Why should I choose ethical & sustainable chocolate?
Meg Chapman, founder of Raw Halo who produces organic raw ethically-grown chocolate says:
“As a consumer you have huge power in your buying decisions. By choosing ethical and sustainable chocolate you’re ensuring that the brands you’re supporting have a positive impact on people and the planet. For Raw Halo that means that cacao farmers and their communities are paid a fair price for the ingredients they produce.
We plant trees in the areas we source our ingredients, and that’s meant nearly 20,000 trees planted so far, creating many more jobs in the local communities. Of course all our ingredients are plant based, organic, and free from any ingredients such as palm oil, whilst our packaging is 100% plastic-free and recyclable. This really is chocolate glowing with good vibes”.
Click here to read a 2019 ethical consumer report that ranks the ethical and environmental record of Easter egg manufacturers.
My recommended chocolate choices
I’ve provided 3 categories and within the categories have rated the choices from bronze to gold. When you compare these to a mass market brand selling milk chocolate at £1.36 per 100g, these will seem expensive, but read on and you’ll see why.
- Supermarket choices
In supermarkets the majority of chocolate available is your ultra-processed, sugar-laden mass market milk chocolate bars in colourful wrappers made by household name brands you’ve grown up with. You’ll find aisles of the stuff. But you can choose better quality chocolate.
First – a word on supermarket own brands
With the popularity of dairy-free, vegan chocolate, supermarkets are selling their own brand chocolate at lower cost than branded versions. However, check the ingredients. Always look for the fewest ingredients and go for 70% plus cocoa solids. Supermarket own brands will mostly have refined sugar, emulsifiers and sometimes milk or flavourings added too.
The brands below available in supermarkets are good choices. Although mostly made with refined sugar and heat-treated cocoa, they are still a much better choice than the ultra-processed mass market chocolate, hence why they enter at bronze level.
Bronze level: Lindt
This brand does have minimal ingredients in its plain 70%, 78%, 85%, 90% & 99% chocolate bars. Their dark chocolate bunny is a reasonable choice for Easter but does have an emulsifier from soya so not an ideal regular choice. Most of their flavoured ranges have added anhydrous milk fat, emulsifiers and flavourings so read the labels.
££ It’s a good value choice if budget is an issue at around £2 per 100g.
Bronze level: Green & Blacks
Now I couldn’t decide whether to include this brand as they used to be 100% organic but following a takeover by a major mass market brand, they have dropped the organic and Fairtrade labels on their new ranges.
They have kept their organic & Fairtrade products in their 70% and 85% ranges which have minimal ingredients (these are the only ones I recommend) but they add emulsifiers in their flavoured & milk ranges.
I have only included it as a further budget choice at £2.22 per 100g if organic is important for you.
Silver level: Enjoy!
As we get further up the medal podium, it is a delight to find raw, organic dark chocolate in a supermarket. I have not tasted this one, but I am reliably informed it tastes good.
Their range is mostly 70% with various flavours (using oils such as peppermint and orange) and they do an 85% too.
I can’t wait to try their non-dairy fudge made with all natural ingredients. Those with nut allergies can enjoy this safely as their recipes and factory are nut-free. This is great value and a rare find in supermarkets!
££ Excellent value for its credentials at £2.85 per 100g.
Available from Asda, Morrisons, Holland & Barrett, Revital, Planet Organic, Booths, Wholefoods
- Organic but not raw chocolate
Silver level: Cocoa Loco
This is a respected brand made with minimal ingredients and is convenient if you shop with Abel & Cole.
Organic farming reduces synthetic chemicals being used in the growing of the cacao pods. They are Fairtrade-certified too and score very well ethically.
Their range includes bars, Easter eggs (with chocolate buttons inside) and a lovely marbled chocolate bunny if you tolerate milk chocolate with your dark chocolate). My children (when they were smaller) loved their chocolate spoons to make hot chocolate.
Their website is not as transparent as I would like to see the actual ingredients of each bar as it is only apparent it has refined sugar in it when you see the actual packaging.
££ Bars cost £3.60 per 100g
Their plain dark chocolate buttons are cheaper at £2.85 per 100g.
- Organic & raw chocolate
- Gold standard for the ultimate healthiest chocolate
- Organic means no unnecessary chemicals used in farming
- Higher in nutrients due to the raw, unheated forms of cacao
- Unrefined sugars used such as coconut sugar
- Most brands at this level have excellent credentials for their ethical sourcing & packaging
- You get sustainable, recyclable, plastic-free packaging
Gold level: The Raw Chocolate Company
This brand aim to reduce their carbon footprint and to support agro forestry whilst making delicious raw chocolate. Their inner wrapper is the only part not fully recyclable, but I love that they are transparent about it.
They produce a wide variety of small bars, but they excel in the snack field with buttons, chocolate covered almonds, cherries, hazelnuts, stem ginger, raisins, favas, goji berries and my all-time favourite mulberries. Many are available in various bundles and snack packs.
Their Vanoffee bar doesn’t have any cacao mass in but is cacao butter flavoured with vanilla and lucuma to give it a mild taste that my son and many of my child clients love.
££ They only do small 38g bars at £1.99 which works out quite pricey at £5.23 per 100g but their snacks make a great change from pure chocolate bars.
Use code JANE20 for 20% off here. Code valid until 18/06/21.
Gold level: Raw Halo
This small company is ethically & sustainably minded. They call their chocolate ‘feel-good chocolate with a glossy shine, satisfying snap and melt-in-your-mouth smoothness’.
Dark & Raspberry is jewelled with raspberry pieces and is really pretty. Dark & salted caramel is a very fashionable strong & salty flavour.
Mylk & Vanilla is the bar to start with if you want to transition from milk chocolate to a higher quality darker chocolate. It has 52% cocao solids so it’s not as bitter as a 70% bar, but with the dairy-free ‘milkiness’ it really does taste closer to what you may be used to.
I love the fact they do 22g bars which is a perfect choice if you tend to pig too much at one sitting!
All packaging is plastic-free.
££ £2.99 for 70g
Use code JANE15 for a 15% discount here. Code expires midnight 30/04/21.
Available in Sainsburys, Waitrose, Ocado, Holland & Barrett & Planet Organic
Gold level: Ombar Chocolate
Also an ethical, sustainable, organic raw cacao company who pay their farmers higher than Fairtrade price. I love their explanation of how their chocolate is made from harvesting the pods to a finished chocolate bar.
Every year on Mothering Sunday, my birthday & Christmas my son buys me a mixed box – he is well trained!
They have a wide range of flavours and a range of ‘centres’ with fillings such as pistachio and hazelnut truffle. Their Coco 60% and Coco Mylk 55% are great introductions to dark chocolate that taste less bitter when you are transitioning from mass market milk chocolate. Their 100% cacao is not for the faint-hearted!
Chocolate buttons available in 72% & Coco milk 55% are excellent options for children and they sell a bulk case of 15 bags for a lower cost. They sell bags of broken pieces for £2.40 per 100g which is great value.
££ £3.29 for a 70g bar but reduces to £2.99 when you buy 10 bars.
Available from Waitrose, Ocado, Planet Organic, Whole Foods Market, and many independent health food shops.
Gold level: Conscious Chocolate
Emma is a self-made chocolatier and from humble beginnings selling raw cacao treats at Glastonbury, was one of the first to bring raw chocolate into health food shops.
All Conscious Chocolate is handmade in the UK in small batches from the finest, ethically-sourced, organic, raw ingredients to bring you chocolate on another level. They focus on taste and experience first with chocolate that uplifts your mood and your senses. They have incredible eco credentials – their kitchen in powered by 100% renewable energy sources.
They have a wide range of chocolate bars, chocolate coated nuts & fruit.
Our family favourite is the orange & tangerine flavour bar, followed by the plain 70%, but they also do a great-tasting strong peppermint, and I was recently introduced to their Love portion No9 which is flavoured with rose and maca and has a wonderful perfume flavour.
For Easter you can’t beat their delicious citrus chocolate bunnies flavoured with grapefruit, lemon & lime. They come boxed in yellow tissue paper (plastic-free packaging).
££ Bars cost £2.79 for 60g
Available in Wholefoods, Planet Organic, Revital, As Nature Intended & Infinity Foods Wholesale.
Visit here and get 20% off with code EASTER20. Offer runs until 30th April 2021.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog, please do leave a comment.
Jane Barrett is a registered nutritionist and expert in digestive health helping women & children with digestive issues take control of their health through food. She offers support through meal plans, online groups & personalised 1:1 programmes on Zoom.
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