A really common question parents have when it comes to weaning is whether or not babies and toddlers can have chocolate and, if not, when? It’s also a question I get lots around Easter, Halloween and Christmas – times when our little ones may be offered many sweeter options!
In this blog I wanted to answer some of the main questions I get asked around offering chocolate to very young children.
Generally speaking, I don’t advise offering children under 1 year of age any chocolate and on top of this I’d normally recommend that chocolate is still really limited (and even initially avoided) in children over the age of one too.
Why not to introduce chocolate too early
Chocolate is usually high in added sugars and very sweet. One of the main reasons why I recommend a Veg Led Approach to Weaning is that it can help babies to become familiar with a wide variety of flavours, as opposed to reinforcing their in-born preference for sweeter tastes.
By including chocolate and other sweet flavours regularly in their diet early on, babies may begin to develop more of a preference for sweeter foods and start to refuse a variety of other flavours including more savoury and bitter options. We want them to experience a real variety of tastes during weaning to help babies develop healthy patterns of eating and accept a really wide variety of flavours right from the start.
Does chocolate have too much sugar for babies?
In terms of the sugar, it’s recommended to avoid added sugars for babies and young children. You can read more about WHY sugar is not recommended for babies and children in my blog on sugars for babies and children.
The NHS says “There’s no (specific) guideline limit for children under the age of 4, but it’s recommended they avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and food with sugar added to it.” So basically our Government recommends that we don’t offer sugary drinks or food with added sugars until they are 4 years of age. As a comparison, in the US, new guidelines were released in 2021 which recommended that children under the age of 2 should have no foods containing added sugars.
Chocolate is a food that can be quite high in sugar, but also doesn’t offer much in the way of nutrition, which can mean that children will fill up on chocolate, without having enough vitamins and minerals from other foods. Chocolate in particular is a very palatable food too, and so it’s easy for us to eat lots of it and to end up having more in the way of sugar and calories as a result.
Children are unlikely to be able to think about “balance” and the importance of variety and getting plenty of nutrients from other foods and so it’s even harder for them to self-limit the amount of chocolate they might eat.
Tips for offering chocolate to children
However, practically speaking, I know it can be tough to avoid chocolate completely, particularly if well-meaning family or friends offer it or you have more than one child! If you choose to offer chocolate to your little one, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, if it’s an occasional part of their diet and doesn’t take away from them getting a balance of nutrients from their food.
Some of my tips if you’re offering chocolate would be:
- Try to keep the amount offered to small portions only – this will help not to displace other nutrient rich foods
- Try not to offer it in toddler’s diets before you need to and before they become aware that others are eating it.
- Continue to offer chocolate in moderation if you want to, but alongside a really wide variety of other foods
And some things that you can do yourself too:
- Avoid having chocolate in the house too often
- Where possible, don’t eat chocolate in front of your little ones
- Practice moderation yourself to help show them what that is
- Don’t worry on the occasion they DO have chocolate and avoid overly restricting it when they can see it
- Think about balance and variety: focus on what else they’re eating
- Look at their intakes over the course of a week, rather than a day
In my experience with Raffy, I was very careful not to offer any chocolate up until around the age of 2, when he became more aware of such foods and of others eating them. I then let him be the guide and once he started asking more about these kinds of foods, I offered it to him in moderation. But, it’s not something we have in the house often and we avoid eating it in front of him. If he sees it and asks for some we usually let him, but try to explain about balance and ask him to listen to his tummy to decide when he’s had enough.
What about the caffeine content of chocolate?
Aside from the sugar content, another ingredient to be aware of in chocolate is caffeine.
Data from EFSA shows the caffeine content of different types of chocolate:
- Dark chocolate has around 19mg of caffeine per 45g (average sized bar)
- Milk chocolate has around 9mg of caffeine per 45g
For comparison, a mug (350ml) of coffee contains around 140mg of caffeine, so whilst it is comparably a small amount, caffeine isn’t recommended for young children. White chocolate does not contain any caffeine since it is made from only cocoa butter as opposed to cocoa solids.
Research into the effects of caffeine on young children is limited and it is therefore difficult to set a recommendation for how much caffeine is safe. In an analysis of research in 2015, EFSA suggested that a total daily intake of around 3mg per kilogram of bodyweight was within a safe limit for children and adolescents. For a 12month old weighing around 10kg, this would equate to 30mg per day – just higher than the total amount in a 45g bar of chocolate.
Whilst the research into the effects of caffeine specifically on children is limited, negative impacts of increased caffeine consumption in adults include; increased heart rate and blood pressure, disrupted sleep, headaches and difficulty concentrating.
Caffeine can also interfere with the absorption of calcium, which is an extremely important mineral for young children – see my blog on calcium for babies for more. The rate at which caffeine passes through a child’s system is at least the same as in adults. This means that the potential for negative impacts is similar in children, but since their body size and therefore tolerance is lower, smaller amounts of caffeine may result in possible negative impacts.
Interestingly, the research from EFSA found that chocolate drinks were an important contributor to caffeine intakes in children and toddlers. As this age group is unlikely to be consuming many other caffeine containing foods, it’s important to be aware of the caffeine content in chocolate and how this may affect your child.
Can I give my baby dark chocolate?
Dark chocolate is often associated with having certain health benefits when compared with milk chocolate. It is true that cocoa contains a compound called flavanols which are a type of polyphenol – a compound found in plant foods such as tea, coffee, wine and chocolate. Some research into flavanols has shown potential benefits to heart health.
However, the amount of flavanols in different cocoa products varies significantly depending on how it’s been processed as well as where and how the cocoa beans have been sourced. Generally, the amount found in regular chocolate available to buy is considerably less than the amount that has been used in studies and will also depend on how the chocolate has been made. Therefore, it’s unclear whether the same benefits will be seen from commercial dark chocolate.
In general, the darker the chocolate, the lower the sugar content, so it can be preferable, if you’re going to offer chocolate, to go for a darker variety. Check the label of the brand you’re choosing and try to go for the lowest sugar per 100g you can find. Although there is a higher amount of caffeine in dark chocolate than milk chocolate, in small amounts of chocolate the caffeine content will still be pretty low and so it’s best to opt for a lower sugar content and just a small amount, where possible.
Can I give my baby cacao?
Cacao powder and cacao nibs are ingredients often found in health food shops, with various suggested health benefits. Pure cacao powder can be used in baking or added to smoothies or milk, but check the ingredients to make sure the variety you’re using doesn’t contain any added sugar.
These products will still contain caffeine and therefore would be advised to be used in small amounts. In terms of health benefits, similar to dark chocolate, the amount of flavanols in these products will vary and so will their potential for benefit, particularly in the small amounts used. The best way to ensure your little one is getting a good balance of nutrients is to offer as much variety as possible from all food groups. Check out my blog on getting the balance right for toddlers for more on balanced diets.
What’s the difference between cocoa and cacao?
There is no significant difference between cocoa powder and cacao powder and the terminology used by manufacturers is inconsistent. The main difference is in the way the cacao beans are processed – the beans are first fermented and then may be roasted before they are ground to a powder. Products which are labelled with “raw cacao” have had less heat treatment (e.g. roasting) during processing, which may preserve some of the antioxidant content. Always check the ingredients when choosing either and check that there’s no sugar added.
Take home points on chocolate for babies and children
Hopefully this blog has answered any questions around offering chocolate to your little one. As a summary, here are my main tips when it comes to giving chocolate to your baby or toddler:
- Avoid where possible for babies under 1 and limit for older babies / children. I chose to avoid offering much in the way of added sugar to Raffy before he was around 2 and to let Raffy be the guide by simply paying attention to when he became aware – no need before then and recommendations do suggest to avoid added sugars (including chocolate) in babies and young children.
- If offering, choose small amounts of darker varieties with a lower sugar content
- Be aware of the caffeine content – offer in small amounts
- If choosing to use cacao or cocoa powder, be aware that it will still contain caffeine and check for no-added sugar options. Pure cacao / cocoa can be used – check for no added sugar and use just a little
And finally, check out my blog on sweet low sugar recipes for kids as an alternative to offering chocolate!
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