You’ve heard chocolate can have health benefits for adults… is chocolate healthy for kids, too? What about chocolate milk? What’s the healthiest way to eat chocolate? And what’s the lowdown about chocolate and caffeine? We’re answering every question you have (and some you didn’t know to ask) about kids’ health and this favorite sweet treat.
When your kids are biting the head off a chocolate Santa or scampering through your neighborhood filling a plastic pumpkin with treats, you’re probably not giving much thought to the health effects of chocolate.
Like all treats, chocolate is basically a fact of life. It’s creamy, delicious, and something we know we shouldn’t let our kids eat in unlimited quantities.
But what makes chocolate different from other kinds of candy is that it may have distinct health benefits. You might have heard it’s “good for your heart.” So is it good for kids, too? How should we eat chocolate to maximize health benefits? And where should we draw the line between foods we encourage and foods we strictly limit?
We set out to learn everything we could about the role of chocolate in kids’ health, starting with the researched health benefits. Here’s what we know.
What are the Health Benefits of Chocolate?
Chocolates contain special antioxidant compounds called flavonols that can help protect our hearts and brains. In one study, cocoa beans tested higher in antioxidants than blueberries and acai berries!
Flavonols reduce cell damage and inflammation, and eating dark chocolate can lower a person’s risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and even cognitive decline.
You might be thinking, um, my kids are a little young to be worrying about high cholesterol. And hopefully you’d be right. But one of our aims here is to set the stage for good habits that protect our kids’ lifelong health. If you can turn your kids onto dark chocolate at a young age, they’ll have that nutritious treat in their back pockets forever. (Not literally. It would totally melt.)
What are the Nutritional Downsides of Chocolate?
Now for the less-rosy news. Most chocolate you can buy at the store does contain a lot of sugar. (Much to the surprise of, well, no one.) As we know, excess sugar can raise the risk of obesity and diabetes, even among kids.
Chocolate also often comes packaged along with unhealthy ingredients like hydrogenated oils, particularly in the popular candy bar brands. (Check labels! Many companies are phasing out this unhealthy oil, but it does still show up.)
Finally, too much chocolate can (sadly) crowd out more important food groups that kids really need to stay healthy. So while a small amount of dark chocolate can give kids an antioxidant boost, fruits, veggies, whole grains and protein foods still need to come first.
Is Chocolate Milk Healthy for Kids?
In most school cafeterias in the U.S., chocolate milk is an available (and popular) choice at lunch. Nutritionists connected to the dairy industry take the stance that chocolate milk meets nutritional requirements, and that the health benefits of the milk outweigh the potential problems of added sugars in the flavoring.
Personally, we’re not comfortable with commercially-made chocolate milk as an everyday drink. That’s because a serving of chocolate milk contains around 12 grams, or three teaspoons of added sugars. That’s half the recommended amount of added sugars that our kids are consuming in one fell swoop. So it really adds up!
Some kids might refuse unflavored milk, and parents feel concerned about gaps in their nutrition. For these kids, cheese and yogurt makes a good alternative that can provide similar nutrition compared to chocolate milk, only without the excess sugar. (Just keep in mind that some yogurts can have a lot of sugar, too! Look for whole plain yogurt, or lower-sugar brands like Siggi’s if you’re trying to minimize sugar.)
You can also make your own creamy and delicious chocolate milk at home, without added sugars at all. Try our recipe.
How Much Caffeine is in Chocolate?
Some people are surprised to learn that chocolate contains caffeine. But the amount of caffeine in chocolate is fairly low, and not usually something to worry about with kids.
The more cocoa solids chocolate contains, the darker it will be and the higher the caffeine content. Dark chocolate typically contains around 25mg of caffeine per serving. Milk chocolate contains only 9 mg. (For the sake of comparison, a cup of coffee contains around 95mg of caffeine.)
Your kids probably won’t feel the affects of caffeine in chocolate. Still, if they’re very small or if you feel uneasy about your kids and caffeine, you can certainly limit them to a square or two, especially if the chocolate is very dark.
What’s the Healthiest Way to Eat Chocolate?
To get the absolute maximum health benefits from chocolate, use unsweetened cocoa powder. You can buy this in the baking aisle. It’s pure powdered chocolate with no added sugars or fats.
All by itself, chocolate tastes bitter! Your kids might try it and realize it’s not tasty at all. But when you pair cocoa powder with sweeteners, that familiar chocolate flavor will pop out. Here are a few delicious recipes that feature cocoa powder and modest added sweeteners:
You can also feel good about serving your kids small amounts of sweetened dark chocolate. This gives a big boost of healthy flavonols without the extra added sugars of milk chocolate.
The Importance of Fostering a Healthy Attitude
Chocolate will probably never lose its status as an indulgent treat, and we have to accept that not every chocolate that passes our kids’ lips is going to be a super healthy food.
That makes it all the more important to model a healthy attitude around chocolate!
That means: enjoy it wholly, in moderation, and without guilt. And remember the true focus of your family’s healthy eating plan: plenty of fruits, veggies, nuts, beans, whole grains, and quality protein.
I'm a registered dietitian, mom of 4, avid lover of food and strong promoter of healthy habits. Here you will find lots of delicious recipes full of fruits and veggies, tips for getting your kids to eat better and become intuitive eaters and lots of resources for feeding your family.Learn More about Natalie