When someone gives you a box of chocolates, they’re pleasing your palate and also helping your health. Maybe those super sweet candies are a little on the decadent side, but in general, a bit of dark chocolate every day can actually yield some benefits. Just like red wine and coffee, dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, and the flavonoids can help filter UV rays and promote good heart health. Chocolate is loaded with important minerals, including magnesium, iron, copper, and manganese, and vitamins A, B1, C, D, and E. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a bit of caffeine, which helps enhance your mood.
If that all sounds too good to be true—and some do dispute those claims—just know that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a bit of dark chocolate, whether it’s from a bar, in a smoothie or slathered on your face. Just keep it all in moderation, of course.
So what is chocolate exactly? It starts with the fruit, or pods, of cacao trees native to Central and South America. Each pod, which looks kind of like an oblong, corrugated football, contains about 40 cacao beans in a white pulp. After a fermentation and drying period, the beans are roasted and cracked to reveal the nib; those nibs are ground to a paste, the beginning of chocolate as we know it.
The story of chocolate is as rich as the ganache on this Ina Garten best cake, going back to the ancient Olmecs of Mexico to today, where dark chocolate bars taunt you in the Trader Joe’s checkout line. The Mayans and Aztecs get most of the credit for sipping frothy brews spiced with chilies or honey as a source of energy and even as an aphrodisiac. For the Mayans chocolate was an everyday staple; mostly upper-class Aztecs had access to chocolate and revered it as much as gold, using cacao beans as trade currency.
Of course, not all chocolate is equal. Most mass-produced versions are often filled with emulsifiers and heavy doses of sugar. But thanks to a new wave of chocolatiers, such as Theo’s Chocolates, Endangered Species Dark Chocolate, Endorfin Foods, and Chocolove, there are bean-to-bar confections that are good for you, the farmers and the earth—all at the same time.
Some basics to look for: Dark chocolate with at least 60% cacao carries the most health benefits, but 70% to 80% is ideal; “fair trade” and “direct trade” mean the farmers are treated and compensated better; and the origin of the cacao bean can be from many different countries (Peru, Madagascar, Brazil, etc.). “Single origin” means the beans come from one location as opposed to a mix from several places. Organic chocolate has obvious benefits, and if a label says “gluten-free,” it means there are no additives that contain gluten. Cacao pods in their natural state do not contain gluten, so any cocoa powder or chocolate product sans additives is gluten-free.
To get a sense of what chocolate may have tasted like to the Mayans, Chocovivo in Culver City, CA makes small-batch dark chocolate that isn’t overly processed, with no added milk powders, soy lecithin or additional cocoa butter. The result is a chocolate bar with a slightly gritty texture and deep, robust, earthy flavor. At the small shop, in addition to sampling flights of chocolates, you can drink 100% melted cacao mixed with only spring water and no sweeteners, like an ancient Mayan warrior might have done.
Of course, you can bake with chocolate—the smell of baking chocolate chip cookies will heal most wounds—make creamy rich hot drinks and even use in cocktails. On the healthier side, use unrefined cacao powder in a superfood smoothie.
The beauty world has taken note of the benefits of chocolate, which can brighten your skin and mood at the same time. By using cocoa powder in a facemask, the same antioxidants and flavanols that help your body when you eat chocolate can help protect from harmful UV rays, hydrate and diminish wrinkles. Make your own chocolate-y DIY beauty aids, like this whipped body butter, Tidy Mom’s chocolate facial goo, or a chocolate and honey face mask. Or take an easier route and try things like Fresh’s Cocoa Body Exfoliant or Perricone MD’s cocoa moisture mask.