organic vegetarian meals for the trail

Dark Chocolate: why should you pack it?

Imagine biting into your favorite chocolate bar. That chocolaty chunk rests for a moment on your tongue, full of rich and creamy goodness. The juices flow from your salivary glands. You roll the piece around in your mouth, and it steadily liquefies by the warmth of your body heat. Your fingers reach for another piece to plop between your lips. 

Chocolate - stonesoup

I often indulge in a good dark chocolate bar. Sometimes I will even go for something more exotic, such as dark chocolate with chili pepper. On a cold night, or after an unusually long day on the trail, I prefer to drink my chocolate. Sometimes I get zesty with that too – by adding spices, such as cinnamon, clove, cardamom and cayenne pepper. Pouring a steaming mug of hot chocolate is a pleasurable nighttime ritual. But chocolate doesn’t have to be consumed alone. It can also be used as to spice up chili soup, noodles, coffee, protein smoothies, and oatmeal.

Clearly, my affection for chocolate isn’t a unique one. Not everyone digs chocolate or goes for adventurous flavors, but most people at least like it. It is thought to be one of the most universally loved foods, dating back from when the Mayans started cultivating it eons ago in the BC era.

Dark chocolate, in particular, is an excellent backpacking food. It is high in calories and promotes health. Regarding calories, chocolate is one of the most energy dense foods we eat, averaging about 160 calories per 1 ounce (28.35 grams). Chemically it is very stable due to the abundance of antioxidants and saturated fat, giving it a remarkably long shelf life. But not all chocolate is created equal. There is the junk food variety of chocolates and the pure, minimal ingredient chocolate sources. There is also white chocolate, which is not chocolate at all.

Here we’ll compare the processing and nutritional details of the different types of chocolate.

Cocoa Pods
Chocolate is created from the seeds produced from the fruit of the cacao tree

How Chocolate is made

To fully appreciate anything, Outdoor Herbivore believes we must first understand it. Chocolate is no different. And it turns out that chocolate making is a fascinating business.

Cocao bean beans must undergo extensive processing before becoming chocolate. After the cacao beans are picked from the tree, they are fermented, dried and roasted. The resulting beans are then cracked open, and the nibs are separated from the shells. The nibs are then pressed into cocoa liquor and passed through a filter to separate the cocoa particles from the fat. The cocoa particles are used to make cocoa powder and the fat for cocoa butter.

Cacao versus Cocoa? Cacao refers to the unprocessed bean of the tree. Once the beans are harvested, dried and roasted, the products are referred to as “cocoa.”

Diluting Cocoa to make Chocolate

From here on, chocolate makers mix various proportions of the cocoa butter and cocoa powder to suit the manufacturer’s needs, as well as other substances, such as milk, sugar, vanilla, and salt to transform it into varying flavors. The darker the chocolate content, the less diluted it is with these other substances, and therefore the healthier. These factors also impact how well they hold up on the trail.

Dark Chocolate for Good Health

It is widely known that dark chocolate is good for your cardiovascular health due to its high concentrations of antioxidant flavonoids and polyphenols. Afterall, chocolate is a plant-based food, derived from the beans of the cacao tree (Latin, Theobroma cacao, “food of the gods”). Cocoa beans, like all seeds, are rich in nutrients to support the embryo to develop into a plant.

Beneficial Fat: Cocoa products are rich in saturated fat (the same type of fat found in animal foods). Most people know to avoid saturated fat because it raises cholesterol levels and promotes heart disease. However, the saturated fat from chocolate is different than the saturated fat coming from animals. The body immediately converts the fatty acid found in cocoa butter into unsaturated fat (oleic acid). Thus, it is healthy for the body and does not negatively impact cholesterol levels. In fact, studies report that consuming dark cocoa actually increases HDL “good” cholesterol and has a neutral effect on LDL “bad” cholesterol.

Polyphenols: Cocoa is high in beneficial polyphenols called flavanols, a type of antioxidant that helps heal damaged human cells. The flavanols are the “bitter compounds” you taste in dark chocolate. More bitter flavor means more flavanol content. 

Nutrients: Despite the intensive processing to turn cocao beans into cocoa, dark chocolate retains most of its polyphenols and dietary nutrients, including copper, magnesium, and iron.

  • Copper is needed to maintain iron levels.
  • Magnesium is a nutrient lacking in most diets and is pivotal for energy production and muscle relaxation.
  • Iron is essential for exercise recovery since it helps deliver oxygen to the muscles.

Physiological Health: Those that enjoy chocolate already know that consuming it makes them feel better. That is because eating chocolate stimulates the release of the mood-lifting chemical, serotonin, in the brain. Similarly, chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a naturally occurring chemical in the body that has amphetamine-like effects. Equally, the sensory experience of eating chocolate with its smooth, creamy texture is powerfully appealing.

Types of chocolate

There are dozens of chocolate options out there, varying in percentages of cocoa content, country of origin, processing method, added fat and sugar.

Dark chocolate – contains cocoa solids, coco butter, and sugar, but no milk solids. It ranges from bitter to bittersweet to sweet. The content of cocoa is displayed as a percentage, with the remaining making up sugar (there is often a small amount of lecithin, usually derived from soy). So, a chocolate bar “70% chocolate” means 70% by weight of cocoa solids and butter and about 30% sugar. Dark chocolate, 70% or higher, is best suited for packing since it resists melting. The darker bars contain a higher proportion of cocoa solids, which resist melting. 

Milk chocolate – when milk solids and sugar outweigh the cocoa content, it is referred to as “milk chocolate.” Most chocolate candies fall into this category. Depending on an individual chocolate manufacturers recipe, the amount of cocoa mass will range from 7-15%. Milk chocolate is the most common type of chocolate because it is the least expensive to produce. Mass produced with the minimum amount of cocoa solid & cocoa butter, it contains mostly inexpensive additives, such as corn sugar and milk solids. Many people find milk chocolate lacking in flavor. It tends to have a one-dimensional sweet flavor and a milky aftertaste. Depending on the origin, it will also taste very different. European milk chocolate taste much different from American milk chocolate due to the milk used in the production process. European variety adds in full-fat milk powder, which retains a fresh taste. American variety allows the milk to age and break down to a cheese-like state, a rancidity that Americans are apparently fond of. Milk chocolate is least suited for backpacking since the high milk content produces a softer chocolate that melts quickly. 

White chocolate – does not contain any cocoa at all. It is a mixture of purified cocoa butter, milk solids, and sugar. It has a sweet and milky taste. It offers no health benefits. White chocolate is not recommended for backpacking. It melts very quickly and has a very short shelf life.

Fine chocolate – comes from cocoa beans selected for their excellent taste profile. They contain dark chocolate with a high amount of cocoa solids and butter. The chocolates are often made in small batches to preserve freshness. Fine chocolates are less suited for backpacking despite their high percentage of cocoa solids because they melt easily since they tend to be small and delicate.

Instant cocoa – designed for “instant” mixing to make hot chocolate. It contains a small amount of cocoa and up to 70% sugar (often corn sugar). It also includes lecithin, an emulsifier to helps the particles more easily mix and dissolve in water. Be sure to check the label! Most instant hot chocolates contain unhealthy additives such as hydrogenated oil, dairy solids, artificial flavors, and preservatives. In the U.S., Ghiradelli uses the least amount of harmful additives. Cocoa mix is perfect for the trail! Make your own in a large enough quantity to keep on hand for trips.

Hot Cocoa Mix for the Trail


  1. Mix 1:2:2 ratio of pure cocoa to sugar to powdered soy/milk.
  2. Add desired spices to taste (salt, cinnamon, cayenne, turmeric, cardamom, etc).
  3. Add the mix to blender and blend until powdered (if you don’t have a blender, use powdered sugar instead). Store mix in a zipbag.

To make hot cocoa: Add desired amount of cocoa mix (try 1/2:1 ratio of cocoa mix to water). Add hot water. Stir thoroughly. Note: Fill mug with dry mix before pouring over the hot water; it mixes more readily this way.

What to look for in Chocolate: Packing Tips

Choose 70% or higher for the most health benefits and packability. The more the cocoa content, the better for your health and likelihood to resist melting. The darker bars contain a higher proportion of cocoa solids. The best option is pure unsweetened chocolate (100% cocoa) made directly from roasted cocoa nibs, but it will taste very bitter. Most people find 70 – 80% to be more agreeable in taste.

  • Packing Tips for Chocolate: 70% or higher dark chocolate should stay solid under 80 degrees as long as it is not exposed directly to the sun. Keep the bars stowed in the center of your pack. If temperatures are expected reach above 80 degrees, keep the bars wrapped in a plastic zip bag. Also, compare chocolate bars by shape. A smaller, thicker bar will hold up better than the flatter, elongated bar. Brands such as Lindt are less dense and therefore tend to melt more easily than some of the other brands.

Choose Organic. Chocolate absorbs lead from the environment during production, and there is a concern of mild lead poisoning for some types of chocolate. The organic label represents more consideration in the growing and processing conditions. Organic food is the safer choice to consume.

Choose Fair-Trade. Most cocoa is produced in West Africa, which continues to allow slavery (often children) even though it is illegal. Purchasing fair trade encourages kinder labor practices and conditions.

Choose Non-Alkalized. If chocolate has been alkalized, it will show up on the ingredient label. Dutch processed, or alkalized is a treatment process of the cocoa beans with an alkali (often potassium carbonate) to remove some of the bitter compounds and give a milder taste. The amount of alkalization processing impacts the anti-oxidant activity of chocolate and reduces the flavanols (remember, the more bitter, the more the flavanols). The reduction depends on the amount of alkalizing performed. Processing that includes very high heat or a high level of alkalization depletes the phenolic profile the most. Avoid Dutch-processed cocoa for these reasons, or look for minimal alkalized chocolate.

Some of my staple choices of dark chocolate bars include:

Alter Eco Dark Blackout 85%
Dagoba 87%
Equal Exchange Panama Dark 80%
Green and Blacks 85%
Lindt 80% (when the others can’t be found)

Less Healthful Effects of Chocolate

Chocolate is an energy-rich food. Over-consumption of any energy-rich food without a corresponding increase in activity will contribute to body fat. Raw chocolate is high in cocoa butter, a healthy fat which is removed in varying proportions during the chocolate refining process. To compensate, manufacturers may add a less healthy fat such as hydrogenated palm oil or milk fat, which negate the good health effects of cocoa. These additives, unlike cocoa butter, can raise bad LDL cholesterol. Always read the ingredient labels if you are concerned about your health!

And remember, don’t share chocolate with your animal friends! Chocolate is toxic to dogs & cats. Chocolate contains a substance called theobromine, a compound which is safe for humans but poisonous to small animals.

carob tree with fruit podsDon’t want to consume chocolate, but want a similar taste?

Look for roasted Carob, which has a chocolaty flavor and is naturally sweet. Carob comes from a tree (Ceratonia siliqua) and does not contain theobromine, so it is also safe for pets. Carob is also high in vitamins and trace minerals. You can purchase carob chips to replace chocolate chips or powdered carob to replace cocoa mix.

What is your favorite chocolate to pack out on the trail?



How chocolate is made as food:
Impact of alkalization on chocolate and phenol content:
Health benefits of dark chocolate:
HDL cholesterol and dark chocolate:
Chocolate Manufacturing: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee

Related Posts:

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2 thoughts on “Dark Chocolate: why should you pack it?”

  • I love the recipe Steve Dragul concocted for Wake Up Balls, a kick to get you going on the hiking trail. In my book On the Chocolate Trail, we call them Cayennne Kicks. They energize you for the day with a chocolate, dried fruit, pepper, coffee bean mix. See p. 147 of the book and enjoy! Deborah Prinz

  • Really cool article. I hadn’t considered chocolate as a backpacking food but I think I’ll pack a bar or two for my next adventure 🙂

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