Chocolate and chocolate-containing desserts are among the most popular in the world. For most people over the last few centuries, chocolate was a flavoring — like vanilla or cinnamon. Then, with the invention of the candy bar, chocolate turned into a food. And I know people who swear that chocolate is an entire food group! Just think of all the desserts you’ve encountered that contain chocolate, either as a flavoring, or a major ingredient:
- Chocolate chip cookies
- Cakes and tarts
- Chocolate pudding
- Chocolate ice cream
And the list goes on. In a CNN article on the 50 best desserts from around the world, one-fifth of them contained chocolate, from Italian tiramisu to Argentinian alfajores to German Black Forest cake to Hungarian Eszterhazy torta.
The good news is, not only is chocolate delicious and a powerful mood enhancer, but it can also be good for your health. Scientists are learning that chocolate is a plentiful source of antioxidants, including some of the same polyphenols renowned in red wine and green tea. These substances reduce the ongoing cellular and arterial damage caused by oxidative reactions. In layman’s terms, they help fight cancer and heart disease.
In a study of 1,000 heart attack survivors, published by Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet in 2009, patients who ate dark chocolate several times per week cut their risk of dying from heart disease threefold compared to those who didn’t eat chocolate at all.
When Chocolate Desserts Become Unhealthy
But although pure dark chocolate or cocoa powder may be healthy, many chocolate desserts contain additional ingredients that make them not so good for you. Chief among these are dairy and refined sugar.
The Trouble with Dairy
I don’t want to spoil the mood of this happy dessert article with a long essay about what’s wrong with consuming dairy, so here’s a full article I’ve written on the topic that you can check out when you’re in the mood.
But until you get to it, know that desserts that add copious amounts of milk, butterfat, and cheese are no friend to your health, the health of the planet, or the well-being of animals. First of all, most humans lack the enzyme that digests lactose, the main sugar found in cow’s milk. Lactose intolerance, as this condition is called, is especially prevalent among Asian, Black, and Native American populations. Symptoms include digestive distress, including gas, bloating, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. Sadly, because dairy is so common in the American diet, many people suffer their whole lives without realizing that their diet is the culprit. Almost 65% of the human population has difficulty digesting lactose.
Many people, even those who can digest lactose, still suffer from milk allergies. Unlike lactose intolerance, which is an inability to digest milk sugars, allergies result from an over-the-top immune response to milk proteins. While some milk allergies are obvious, causing hives, swelling face and lips, skin rashes, and anaphylactic symptoms such as shortness of breath and tightening throat, others are far more low-grade, and just add to the immune load on the body. Many people report that when they eliminate dairy from their diets, they experience the disappearance of allergic symptoms such as asthma, acne, eczema, and seasonal allergies.
Dairy is high in saturated fat, which is associated with our most common and deadly chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and dementia.
Growth Hormones & Antibiotics
Many dairy products produced by our industrial farming system contain dangerous chemicals like bovine growth hormones and antibiotics, both administered liberally to the cows to increase industry profits. The growth hormones harm the cows and are also associated with increased colon, breast, and prostate cancer in humans who consume dairy.
And despite ice cream and milk cartoon images of happy cows grazing in bucolic pastures, dairy is no friend to the environment. The dairy industry contributes to greenhouse gases that speed up the pace and severity of global warming. And its practices of scale and confinement provide ideal breeding grounds for mega-viruses that could turn into future pandemics.
Well, it looks like I did go on a mini-rant about the many problems with dairy, after all. As the grandson of one of the founders of Baskin-Robbins, I guess the topic is still close to my heart!
If you grew up on Hershey’s bars and M&Ms, you might have been surprised to discover as an adult that pure chocolate is quite bitter. While the ancient Aztecs may have prized that bitterness in their cacao-based drinks, modern tastes tend to prefer sweet. The chocolate industry has obliged us by adding vast amounts of sugar to their products. And that’s on top of all the sugar we get from other foods. American adults consume, on average, a whopping 60 pounds of added sugar per year. And the numbers are even worse for children. They average 65 pounds of added sugar each year. As the American Heart Association colorfully points out, that’s enough to fill a bathtub.
Now, there’s a big difference between the natural sugars found in fruits, and the refined sugar added to chocolate, soda, cookies, bread, sauces, and just about anything else that’s sold in a plastic package. With no water or fiber to buffer it, that refined sugar arrives all at once in your system. Your body has to deal with it quickly to keep your blood sugar at a safe level. And the easiest way to do that is to convert it to fat and store it in your muscles.
Some of the health problems caused by excess refined sugar include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.
Plant-Based Alternatives to Dairy and Sugar
So we’ve got a conundrum. Chocolate is a healthy substance. But the ways we consume it are not. Are there alternatives that can let us have our (healthy) chocolate cake and eat it too? Knowing about the detrimental effects of dairy and sugar, what can you replace them with in plant-based desserts?
Ten years ago, my answer would have been much shorter and far less satisfactory. But in the last decade, the world of plant-based dairy alternatives has undergone a revolution. The production methods have become more sophisticated, the quality has increased, and the market has exploded. Even mainstream supermarkets are starting to carry plant-based milk made from soy, oat, hemp, coconut, rice, and almond.
If your recipe calls for butter, you can get the same creaminess from avocado, or from unrefined coconut or olive oil. Nuts and nut butters can also add healthy fats to dairy free chocolate desserts. Coconut cream replaces heavy cream. And plant-based yogurts or a simple preparation of silken tofu with lemon juice can substitute for sour cream or milk-based yogurt.
The world of sweet and healthy sugar substitutes has also grown in the last few years. While fruit (fresh, frozen, and defrosted) remains the best option to sweeten desserts naturally, you can also use:
- dried dates
- date paste and date sugar
- yacon syrup (which comes from a sweet Andean root that resembles a sweet potato)
- sugar alcohols like xylitol (which can be good for dental health)
- stevia (a calorie-free sweetener that has some downsides for your health).
Sugar and Dairy Free Chocolate Recipes
Who needs sugar and dairy when you have dates, bananas, and nuts to create sweetness — and avocado, tofu, and coconut to create creaminess? Your taste buds will not complain one bit when you introduce them to any of the dairy free chocolate goodness below. Several of the recipes call for date paste. So we’re including our Super Simple Homemade Date Paste recipe as a bonus!
Before getting busy in the kitchen, be sure to read our article, “The Truth About Chocolate.” That way you can choose ethical ingredients to enjoy without guilt. (Spoiler alert: Go for organically grown and fair trade or Rainforest Alliance Certified chocolate so you can say “no” to child slavery and help build a more equitable and sustainable world with every bite!)
The chocolate base alone might be enough to call it a day in terms of flavor! But if you’re looking to optimize nutrition while feeling indulgent without being indulgent, then add some extra nourishment with organic cherries, your favorite nut or seed butter, and some extra banana slices.
Stay cool and energized this summer with dark chocolate and sea salt ice cream, which gets its creaminess from coconut milk and natural sweetness from dates. Bananas act as a double agent, giving this irresistible treat some of both. One thing that’s awesome about homemade ice cream is that you can adjust the sweetness to your liking.
Prepare to feel decadent when enjoying this creamy dairy free chocolate mousse. Decadent without the downside that is. There are four stars in this show — fiber-rich avocado, phytonutrient-rich cacao powder, protein-packed almond butter, and iron-rich dates. See what we mean?
Turn up the heat with this coveted beverage, “xocolatl,” that was symbolic of strength and health in Mesoamerica over 3,000 years ago. Cacao was said to boost energy and enhance mood. Now there’s some research to back up that claim! Enjoy this as an afternoon snack or as a replacement for your morning cup of joe.
Are you the most ardent of dark chocolate enthusiasts? Then this raw dark chocolate bar is for you! Enjoy it with crunchy pistachios or add a little dried fruit for natural sweetness.
Heavenly. Dreamy. Delectable. These are just a few words to describe this dairy free chocolate dessert that will definitely please the crowd. Your non-vegan guests won’t even know that the chocolate cream is made with tofu!
Enjoy this healthy version of the old childhood favorite, Nutella, famous for its chocolate-hazelnut flavor. This version is chock-full of fiber, magnesium, and iron. Standing in for refined sugar? Dates, of course!
If you’re a chocolate lover, you may worry that healthy eating could threaten one of your favorite culinary delights. Or maybe you’re still in mourning from giving it all up. But now there’s no need for pouting or feeling left out when the people around you indulge in desserts you “can’t have” anymore. Now, you can reclaim a healthy enjoyment of one of nature’s most amazing foods — chocolate. The food the ancient Greeks dubbed “Theobroma” — the food of the gods. You can still find inspiration in the decadent treats full of unhealthy ingredients like dairy and refined sugar. But now you can make them healthier with a few simple plant-based substitutions.
Tell us in the comments:
- What was your favorite chocolate dessert as a child?
- What are your favorite healthy ways to enjoy chocolate?
- Which sugar and dairy free chocolate recipe will you try next?
- The Truth About Chocolate: How to Choose Healthy and Ethically Produced Cacao Products
- Sweeten the End of a Plant-Powered Meal with These 8 Healthy Summer Dessert Recipes
- Does a Good Sweetener Exist? A Review of 15 Popular Sugar Substitutes
- Is Dairy’s Reign Over? (Problems with Dairy and The Dairy Industry)