In a world rife with injustice, it’s nice to catch a break now and again. So it’s been especially delightful to hear about the mounting research backing up the health benefits of chocolate. Studies show that the antioxidants found in cocoa beans—known as flavonols—help lower blood pressure and keep arteries clear; they may also help reduce the risk of diabetes. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can go crazy in the candy aisle. A few simple rules will steer you to the smartest sweets.
1. Go dark
Dark, less processed chocolate contains more disease-fighting flavonols than lighter, more processed chocolate. There’s no exact percentage to shoot for, but in general the higher the percentage of cocoa (also sometimes called cacao), the higher the antioxidant level—and the lower the calorie count because there’s less added sugar and milk, explains Caroline Kaufman, RDN, a nutrition expert in Los Angeles and expert panelist for the Health Must-Eat List. Skip white chocolate—it doesn’t contain any flavonols.
2. Sleuth out sugar
Most candy and chocolate will have sugar pretty high on the ingredients list. That’s OK if you’re going to enjoy it as an occasional treat, but it’s possible to choose a more nutritious indulgence. To get on our Health Must-Eat list, products couldn’t have sugar listed first or second. The chocolates that made the cut (see following page) typically had some form of chocolate and/or cocoa as the first ingredient, often followed by a fruit or nut.
3. Look for bonus nutrients
Although chocolate’s flavonols get most of the attention, the products spotlighted on the next page are also rich in either iron or (surprise!) fiber. In fact, even without the addition of fruit or nuts, some plain bars contain 5g or more of filling fiber per serving, or about a fifth of your daily needs.
4. Practice portion control
No matter how healthy the chocolate you choose, you still have to watch your portions to keep calories in check. You need only a small amount to reap the antioxidant benefits, so stick to 1 to 1.5 oz. a day (roughly 150 to 250 calories). Trying to lose weight? Cap your chocolate fix at 1 oz.