Why milk chocolate may soon be as healthy as dark chocolate

American researchers say they've been able to add some of the health-boosting properties of dark chocolate to milk chocolate — without affecting its taste.

Researchers say they've added antioxidants to milk chocolate without making it bitter

Could the occasional candy bar indulgence actually be part of a healthy diet? (Phil Noble/Reuters)

Halloween has come and gone, and chances are good that most of us are still neck-deep in milk chocolate. But could the occasional candy bar indulgence actually be part of a healthy diet?   

Much has been written about the potential health benefits of dark chocolate, while its sweeter, creamier cousin offers little in the way of nutrition. 

But American researchers say they've been able to add some of the health-boosting properties of dark chocolate to milk chocolate — without affecting its taste. 

Can milk chocolate really be healthy?

Dark chocolate contains antioxidants, in the form of chemicals called polyphenols, that have been shown to lower blood pressure and prevent cancer progression. The problem is that those healthy compounds also give dark chocolate a bitter taste. Milk chocolate, with all of its added sugar and fat, contains little in the way of nutritional benefit. 

And while some of us might have a taste for bitter, dark chocolate, consumers typically find milk chocolate more appealing. That's where this new research comes in. 

Making milk chocolate healthier

Researchers from North Carolina State University, whose work was recently published in The Journal of Food Science, took generic (and delicious) milk chocolate and added beneficial antioxidants to it.

But they didn't add the polyphenols from cocoa because by increasing the cocoa content they would also increase the bitterness. Instead, they took peanut skins, the purplish-red skin on top of a shelled peanut, and processed it with an artificial sweetener until it blended nicely with milk chocolate. 

According to a blind taste test of 80 people, the fortified milk chocolate and the regular milk chocolate were indiscernible.

The polyphenols in dark chocolate have been shown to lower blood pressure and prevent cancer progression. Milk chocolate has few of the same health benefits - until now. (Gregory Bodnar/Flickr)

"We were able to take milk chocolate and increase the bioactivity up to the level of dark chocolate without any kind of bitter taste or change in the mouth feel that consumers found objectionable," said lead researcher and food scientist Lisa Dean. 

By increasing the bioactivity, Dean says these are doses that you can actually achieve — you don't have to eat 100 chocolate bars to see the benefits.

What do antioxidants do?

Antioxidants are chemicals that are able to absorb and mop up the reactive oxygen made as a natural product of our metabolism. We need oxygen, of course, but when we use oxygen in cellular reactions some of the byproducts can be toxic to our cells. 

Put simply, antioxidants protect us from the damage that the simple act of breathing can inflict on our cells.

Plants naturally make antioxidants for a couple of reasons.

First, the bitter flavour of polyphenol antioxidants deters insects from eating them. In fact, a raw cocoa bean is practically inedible because of how bitter it is.

Raw cocoa beans are rich in antioxidants, which help deter insects from eating them. (Flickr / Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

The second reason is that the oils and fats in seeds — like peanuts — are sensitive to oxidation and can cause the seeds to go rancid. By protecting the seeds with antioxidants, the plant can increase the chance that the seed will grow into a plant.

What about peanut allergies?

The researchers have not yet looked at whether their peanut-skin additive can trigger an allergic reaction.

And while the overwhelming majority of us don't have a peanut allergy, there is still the potential for a severe non-contact reaction to be triggered. This is a product that won't ever be labelled peanut-free. 

But one of the amazing things about this work is that peanut skins are normally a huge waste product in the roasting and processing process. Even though there's lots of good stuff in peanut skins, they are not used in peanut butter because the oils in them have a shorter shelf-life than the rest of the peanut.

With this work, scientists have actually figured out how to turn a waste product into a value-added product that has some considerable health benefits.


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