Chocolate isn’t inherently unhealthy. In fact, pure cocoa has very little sugar, lots of fiber, and a huge amount of antioxidants. The metabolic risks of a chocolate habit come not from cocoa itself but from the copious sugar typically added to it.
Processed chocolate treats often have more sugar than all other ingredients combined. A standard 43-gram Hershey’s bar, for example, contains about 25 grams of sugar, 21 of which are added. Similarly, a 39-gram pouch of Swiss Miss hot chocolate has 23 grams of added sugar; and a 26-gram Betty Crocker brownie serves up 15 grams. In other words, your typical brownie may be almost 60% sugar.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Levels dataset indicates that most chocolatey desserts prompt a significant increase in blood glucose. Members logging “chocolate milkshake” experienced an average spike of 55 mg/dL; “chocolate donut” spurred a 40 mg/dL spike; and “brownie” sent glucose up by an average of 33 mg/dL.
Still, it’s not all bad news: members logging “90% dark chocolate” experienced an average rise of just 14 mg/dL, a fairly modest response. That’s because a higher percentage of cocoa necessarily means a lower percentage of sugar and, therefore, more stable glucose levels.
“Chocolate absolutely can be part of a healthy, antioxidant-rich diet,” says Levels co-founder and chief medical officer Dr. Casey Means. “The key is to incorporate pure, organic cocoa into low-sugar recipes or buy chocolate that is 88% cocoa or greater. As a former milk chocolate addict, I can personally attest to the fact that if you slowly move towards darker chocolates—meaning more percentage cocoa—you will start to crave the less sweet versions!”
As an example of a metabolically-friendly chocolate treat, Casey shares a recipe for brownies that have tons of flavor with zero added sugar.
“Instead of cane sugar, this recipe uses allulose, which gives you that sweetness without a big blood sugar spike,” she says. “I love these brownies because they’re delicious and use several ingredients that support metabolic health.”
Here are some of those ingredients and their metabolic perks.
- Cocoa comes from the cacao plant, a type of evergreen tree, and contains several critical nutrients, including iron, magnesium, and potassium. Additionally, cocoa provides flavanols, a type of antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties that may protect against insulin resistance. Casey recommends using an organic, non-alkalized cocoa powder since flavanol levels can drop by 90% in alkalized products.
- Allulose is about 70% as sweet as cane sugar and doesn’t typically cause big spikes in blood sugar or insulin—likely because the body cannot easily break down the compound. As such, allulose can be a good sugar substitute in many desserts. Still, Casey recommends using any sweetener in moderation, as excessive consumption will keep your brain and taste buds craving sweet foods.
- Cinnamon, studies indicate, can lower blood sugar in people with diabetes. Researchers attribute this effect, in part, to a molecule in cinnamon called methyl hydroxy chalcone, which helps cells absorb glucose. Cinnamon also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Pecans, like other tree nuts, are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. A pecan-rich diet also appears to improve several facets of metabolic health, including insulin sensitivity and beta cell function. It is also one of the most antioxidant-rich nuts. Additionally, pecans contain fiber, which is critical to gut health and can improve blood sugar levels.
Follow along as Casey bakes her brownies in the video above, or scroll down for the full recipe.
- 1 cup of fine almond flour
- ¼ cup + 2 tbsp of non-alkalized cocoa powder
- ¾ cup of 100% allulose
- Two eggs (ideally organic and pasture-raised)
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp of cinnamon
- ⅓ cup coconut oil
- ½ cup almond butter (or other nut butter)
- 3 tbsp water
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ½ cup stevia-sweetened dark chocolate chips
- ½ cup pecans
(inspired by Chocolate Covered Katie)
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Line an 8-inch, oven-safe dish with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl, combine almond flour, cocoa powder, allulose, eggs, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, coconut oil, almond butter, water, and vanilla extract. Stir to combine.
- Add ¼ cup pecans and ¼ cup chocolate chips, and continue to stir until well mixed.
- Spread batter into the pan and smooth with a spatula.
- Top with the remaining pecans and chocolate chips.
- Bake for 20 minutes or until a fork can go in and come out clean.
- Remove from oven and let cool.