How can you get your daily chocolate fix -- and eat less sugar or calories, too? That's a million-dollar question that several companies are banking on people asking. Over the past few years, the sugar-free and portion-controlled chocolate market has exploded. There are all sorts of sugar-free versions of favorite chocolate bars. And you can now buy individually wrapped chocolate bars or sticks in 60- to 100-calorie portions, along with the ever-popular kisses.
To help you decide among all the options out there, we taste-tested a number of sugar-free chocolate products (and some portion-controlled ones, too). But first, let's talk about how having a little chocolate every day could actually be good for you.
Can Chocolate Really Be Good For You?
Yes, it's true -- chocolate does appear to have some health benefits. Though more research needs to be done, studies have indicated that cocoa and darker types of chocolate may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, decrease blood pressure, and relax blood vessels.
Many of the health benefits of chocolate seem to stem from the antioxidant flavanols (a type of flavonoid), which are also found in other plant foods including tea, grapes, grapefruit, and wine. The cocoa bean happens to be extraordinarily rich in them.
The flavanol content of chocolate depends on the flavanol content of the cacao plant used, and the way the cocoa was turned into chocolate. But here are three general rules of thumb:
- Cocoa powder and baking chocolate contain more flavonoids than dark chocolate.
- Dark chocolate has more flavonoids than milk chocolate.
- White chocolate has none.
Of course, there's a catch to all this -- you don't want to cancel out all these potential health benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa by eating too many calories or too much saturated fat. So portion control is important.
How Do They Make Sugar-Free Chocolate That Tastes Great?
The first thing I learned while surveying the sugar-free chocolate market was that certain drug stores and supermarkets each stock certain brands of sugar-free chocolate. So, if you're looking for a certain brand, keep going to different stores.
I also soon discovered that the sugar replacement du jour for sugar-free chocolates is maltitol (a sugar alcohol). Almost all of the companies who make sugar-free chocolates are using it.
This type of sugar replacer (which includes sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, and isomalt, in addition to maltitol) is particularly helpful to people with diabetes because only a portion of it is digested and absorbed. And the part that is absorbed through the intestinal tract is absorbed slowly, so there is little rise in blood sugar and little need for insulin.
Sound too good to be true? Well, there are a couple of downsides to sugar-free chocolate:
- Potential intestinal discomfort. Most packages of sugar-free chocolate carry a label that reads" "Excessive consumption may cause a laxative effect." This "laxative effect" is because of the part of the sugar alcohol that isn't digested or absorbed. It goes through the intestinal tract and starts to ferment and attract water. Discomfort ranging from gas to diarrhea can result, depending on the amount consumed and each person's individual intestinal tract. Consider this a little extra motivation to eat these chocolates in small portions! The American Dietetic Association advises that more than 50 grams of sorbitol or 20 grams of mannitol per day can cause diarrhea. You can find out how much sugar alcohol is in each sugar-free chocolate product by reading the nutrition information label.
- Sugar-free doesn't mean saturated-fat free, or calorie-free. Chocolate tastes so good because of two things: the sweet ingredient (maltitol, in the case of sugar-free chocolate), and cocoa butter. And cocoa butter is rich in saturated fat. For example, five pieces of Russell Stover Sugar Free Chocolate Candy Miniatures add up to 190 calories, 14 grams of total fat, and 9 grams of saturated fat.
Best-Tasting Sugar-Free Chocolates
There were definitely some brands that most of my tasters really liked and would buy again (myself included). Here are four winners:
- Galler Belgian Royal (available at Whole Foods Markets). The taste and texture are great! This brand fooled me into thinking it was regular chocolate. I would definitely buy it again and again. It has that smooth, creamy Swiss chocolate texture. Cost: About $5.99 for a 100-gram bar
- Dove Sugar Free Rich Dark Chocolates with Chocolate Creme (it also comes in Raspberry Creme option). This has a nice, smooth texture and rich dark chocolate taste. Cost: $3.29 for a 96-gram bag
- Yamate Chocolatier Sugar Free Milk Chocolate (available at Whole Foods Markets). Creamy texture; rich flavor. Cost: $3.39 for an 85-gram bar
- Weight Watchers Pecan Crowns (this does contain some sugar). The caramel texture is good -- thick, chewy, and satisfying. It tastes like regular, delicious turtle candy. Cost: $2.99 for an 85-gram bag
Does Sugar-Free Chocolate Have Fewer Calories?
The good news is that there are some calorie savings with sugar-free chocolate. The bad news is that it isn't an impressive amount. A 40-gram serving of Dove sugar-free chocolate has 190 calories, and the same amount of regular milk chocolate totals around 210 calories. If this represents a daily savings of 20 calories, the weekly savings could be 140 calories, and the monthly savings, 560.
Given these calorie totals, it's important to keep portion size in mind even if you opt for sugar-free chocolate. Three pieces of the new Hershey's Special Dark Sugar Free Chocolates (24 grams weight) add up to 114 calories, 9 grams fat, 5.4 grams saturated fat, 13.8 grams carbohydrate, and 1.8 grams fiber.
While even a little calorie savings could add up for someone who enjoys some chocolate every day, the bottom line is that these new sugar-free chocolates probably are of most benefit to people with diabetes. These products could help them enjoy a little bite of chocolate without worry of it raising their blood sugar levels.
What about Regular Chocolate?
If you don't want to go sugar-free, the trick is enjoying your chocolate (preferably the flavanol-contributing dark chocolate) in small portions. And you can easily find portion-controlled chocolate options, whether you choose mini-bars, kisses, or "nuggets."
Can you really be satisfied with a half-ounce portion? Maybe so, if you really stop and take the time to savor it. Don't just pop it in your mouth as you run out the door. See how long you can take to enjoy that half-ounce of chocolate.
One of the more nutritious and satisfying dark chocolate options out there is Hershey's Special Dark Nuggets with Almonds. This way, you get some nutritious almonds along with your dose of dark chocolate. If you can be satisfied with 2 of these "nuggets," (19 grams) this would add up to 110 calories, 7 grams of fat, 3 grams of saturated fat (0 trans fat), 10 grams of carbohydrate and 1.5 grams of fiber and 1.5 grams of protein.
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.