Is Chocolate Safe for Children?

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Discussion of the impact of chocolate in a child’s diet. Overview of the scientific literature on its potential effects on development and behavior, what physicians used to recommend to their patients, and why this has changed today.

It is very concerning to me how much chocolate children consume today.
It seems that chocolate has become a regular feature in the modern diet with many children consuming it on a daily basis.
What’s more, some adults seem to think it’s acceptable to push it on children. This contributes greatly to the problem encouraging the potential development of chocolate addiction later.
I regularly receive emails from parents up in arms over the regularity of chocolate consumption at school. This is almost always without their input or permission.
What’s more, some teachers use chocolate as a reward. This can unwittingly encourage a psychological dependency later.
Some teachers even hand it out before standardized testing to help the students stay awake!
What is this all about? This type of thing never happened when I was in school – public or private.
Fake Chocolate Dangers
Even worse, the chocolate these children are eating is fake chocolate in most cases.
American candy companies have slowly but surely replaced real ingredients over the years with factory synthesized fake flavors and GMO sugar. In addition, real, full-fat cocoa butter is usually replaced with cheap, rancid vegetable oils.
This is the case in all but a few of the most top-of-the-line brands.
Always read those labels, though!
Even expensive, beautifully packaged Godiva chocolate has horrible ingredients.
Some European chocolate companies have disappointingly followed suit in the name of improving profits.
If you’ve ever compared the taste of an artificially flavored, GMO-sweetened Snickers bar with the real taste of chocolate in an Ocho bar (organic, non-GMO Snickers alternative), then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Studies on Chocolate’s Effect on Development
This acceptance of eating chocolate at a young age openly enabled by many parents and teachers alike is a very worrisome trend.
When I was young, my parents rarely let me eat any chocolate let alone any caffeinated substance. This was out of concern that the caffeine would prove damaging to my developing kidneys. With few exceptions, I was only allowed a few pieces of chocolate candy at Halloween or Easter.
My physician Dad recommended the same to the patients who sought his medical advice in his Family Practice.
Even today, a review of the existing literature on the effect of caffeine on the kidneys is conflicting. (1,2)
So, for children whose kidneys are still growing and developing, caution remains the best policy.
The Chocolate Coin and Easter Egg Experiments
My overall food philosophy when it comes to chocolate and children includes a good measure of practicality.
I came to this conclusion based on two studies published in the peer-reviewed journal Appetite in 2012. (3)
The researchers studied the impact of parental restriction of chocolate in their children’s diets. Perceived and actual food intake was assessed.
Children in the restriction groups consumed fewer chocolate coins and Easter eggs. Yet, by the end, the children who were restricted showed more preoccupation with chocolate!
The researchers concluded that food restriction resulted in reduced intake in the short-term, but relatively increased preoccupation with the limited food over the longer term.
Most interesting, however, is that the no-rules group experienced a greater preoccupation with other sweet foods once they consumed the target food.
Balance Seems to Be the Key to Success
Given the results of the studies described above, it seems that balance is the key.
Keeping chocolate away from children 100% throughout their entire childhood, while a very good idea if you can pull it off, is still a decision that has the very real potential of backfiring bigtime.
What I mean by backfiring is that children may start sneaking the chocolate out of rebellion.
On the other hand, not restricting it at all can contribute to other problems such as poor dietary habits.
Thus, striking a happy medium seems wise.
Teaching children how to identify good quality chocolate and what it means to enjoy it in moderation is the best approach, in my opinion.
My strategy has always been to provide opportunities for my children to consume small amounts of chocolate that are real, whole, and free of GMOs.
These treats should always be in the presence of healthy fat. This prevents excessive consumption, blood sugar spiking/mood crashes (aka, meltdowns), or the development of addiction.
In my view, giving kids a taste of the good stuff is their best shot at learning to steer clear of the unhealthy stuff. It also gives them the mental wherewithal to say no when chocolate is all around them.
Preventing Addictive Chocolate Consumption
Especially as children grow older, if they’ve only been eating the real thing under supervised moderation, they will hopefully come to realize that processed chocolate really doesn’t taste very good after all and that it’s better to avoid it.
While no strategy is perfect, I’m happy to report that this approach seems to have worked with my three children, who are all quite different in temperament, personality, and food preferences.
Now old enough to make their own dietary decisions, they rarely eat conventional chocolates or candy.
They instead prefer the occasional homemade treat or quality piece of chocolate from an independent confectionery that uses traditional ingredients.
What is/was your strategy regarding chocolate with your children?
(1) Effects of caffeine on bone development
(2) Caffeine and the kidneys
(3) Parental restriction and children’s diets. The chocolate coin and Easter egg experiments

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