Cacao (Chocolate)

Food Type:
Age Suggestion: 24 months +
Nutrition Rating:How nutritious a food is with a focus on the specific nutrients babies need for optimal growth. The more nutritious a food, the more stars it will have.
Prep Time:How much time a food takes to prepare safely for a baby. The more time-consuming a food is to prepare safely, the more clocks it will have.
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Poop Friendly:Whether a food has qualities that help baby poop. Yes
Common Allergen: No
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a cacao pod cut in half to show the fresh beans inside on a white background

When can babies have chocolate and cacao?

Cacao and chocolate products are best reserved until closer to the second birthday because they contain caffeine and often sugar. That said, very small tastes of chocolate and small sips of atole, champurrado, hot cocoa, or another alcohol-free cacao or chocolate drink after a baby’s first birthday are fine. Babies under 12 months of age should not be given any drink other than breast/human milk, formula, or small amounts of water. Cacao fruit pulp, because it contains minimal amounts of caffeine, is safe to serve to babies.

Read more about the impact of too-early sugar introduction in our blog, Sugar and Taste Preferences. Looking for sugar-free cake recipes? See our Smash Cakes.

Where do cacao and chocolate come from?

Chocolate comes from cacao, the seeds of a tropical tree that originated in the Amazon and traveled with migration and trade to Central America. Cacao is a sacred plant for the Mayan and Nahua peoples, whose ancestors used it for currency, medicine, ritual, and food—often in the form of a drink. This tradition continues: as popular as coffee is for some, atole made with cacao is a daily drink for others. The frothy beverage traditionally consists of cacao, cornmeal, water, and spices like achiote, chile, and vanilla. During colonization of the Americas, Europeans adapted the drink by swapping milk for water and indigenous seasonings for sugar produced by enslaved people from Africa, where most cacao grows today.

★ Tip: When purchasing cacao and chocolate products, check out the Food Empowerment Project and Slave Free Chocolate for reputable chocolate suppliers who are sourcing responsibly. Global demand for chocolate and cocoa powder has serious implications for the health and welfare of the people and land where cacao grows.

Amelia, 20 months, has a small taste of hot chocolate.
Julian, 26 months, has chocolate two ways – as chocolate milk and a small piece of chocolate bar.
Max, 3 years, tries cacao nibs for the first time.

Are cacao and chocolate healthy for babies?

In general, no. Cacao and chocolate contain caffeine and other stimulants, like theobromine, which can impact a child’s development and nervous system.1 2 In excess, caffeine can reduce appetite, cause jitteriness, affect sleep, and exacerbate reflux, and babies are more sensitive to caffeine than older children and adults.3 4 5 Further, cacao and chocolate products are often high in added sugars, which are not recommended until closer to age 2.6 In excess, sweeteners like sugar can reduce the diversity of foods your child is interested in eating and even increase the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes and negatively impact cardiovascular health.7 For older toddlers, cacao and chocolate can be a healthy part of a varied diet, in moderation.

Nutritionally, cacao is an incredible source of antioxidants—the darker the chocolate, the higher the antioxidant concentration—as well as plenty of other plant compounds with numerous benefits for the heart, brain, nervous system, and gut health.8 9 10 11 Cacao also provides a range of healthy fats to fuel baby’s energy, plus good amounts of fiber, iron, magnesium, and zinc.12 13

★Tip: When shopping for chocolate to share with toddlers and young children, aim for semi- or bittersweet products (which are likely to be lower in sugar) and take care to read the label for allergens. Processed chocolate products often contain common allergens like dairy, soy, and tree nuts (or are processed in the same facility as these allergens).

How is chocolate made?

To make chocolate, cacao seeds (also called beans) are fermented with the sticky pulp from their fruit pod—a process that infuses distinctive sweet flavor into the bitter beans. From there, the beans are dried for preservation, roasted for flavor, ground up for processing, and refined to separate the fat (cocoa butter) from the solids. From there, the solids can be either pulverized into powder (used to make cacao powder, cocoa powder, Dutch cocoa powder, and hot cocoa powder) or pressed and mixed with cacao butter, sugar, and seasonings to make chocolate.

What is the difference between cacao and cocoa?

Cacao and cocoa come from the same source: cacao seeds that have been fermented, dried, and processed. To make cocoa powder, the fermented and dried beans are roasted to impart flavor. To make cacao powder, the beans skip the roasting process, which is why cacao is sometimes called a “raw” food—a debatable term for beans that have been fermented and dried. Cocoa powder is called “Dutch cocoa powder” when potassium carbonate is added during processing to further reduce the acidity and mellow the bitter flavor from the cacao seed.

All three powders can be used interchangeably, although they vary in taste. Cocoa powder tends to be sweeter than cacao powder. Dutch cocoa powder is even sweeter, and its lower acidity can impact how baked goods rise.

Can babies and toddlers have dark chocolate? How about white chocolate?

Yes, but ideally after 24 months of age, and offered in small amounts, due to the presence of caffeine and added sugars. The darkest chocolates tend to be lowest in sugar, but have the highest caffeine content. White chocolate, on the other hand, contains no cacao and is free of caffeine, but tends to be high in sugar. When serving any kind of chocolate to a child, keep the amounts small and frequency low, and strike a balance you feel comfortable with: typically, the darker the chocolate are lower in sugar, but higher in caffeine and, conversely, lighter chocolates are lower in caffeine, but higher in added sugars.14

Can babies and toddlers have chocolate milk?

After 24 months of age, and on occasion, yes. Babies under 12 months of age should not be given any drink other than breast/human milk, formula, or small amounts of water. While there is little caffeine in chocolate milk, it can be very high in sugar. Nutrition in chocolate milks varies widely and depends on the type of milk—whole cow milk, non-dairy beverage, etc.—and added nutrients like vitamin D. Read labels, choose chocolate milks that are lower in sugar, and offer only on occasion.

Drinks like atole, champurrado, or drinking chocolate may be part of your family’s cultural tradition, and it’s fine to share small tastes with children after 12 months, on occasion.

★Tip: Reduce the sugar in chocolate milk by simply adding a splash of regular milk to it before serving. Alternatively, you can make chocolate milk from scratch, using a little less chocolate powder to keep sugar and caffeine to a minimum.

Can babies eat cacao fruit pulp?

Yes. Cacao fruit pulp contains a negligible amount of caffeine and is fine to offer to babies starting at 6 months of age, as long as the inner seed (the cacao bean) has been removed.15 The floral, tangy tasting cacao pulp contains plenty of natural fruit sugars, some fiber, and is a rich source of potassium and vitamin C, with lesser amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and B vitamins. The pulp also offers a number of antioxidants and polyphenols.16 17 Cacao fruit pulp is sold fresh in regions where the tree grows, and the frozen pulp is more widely available.

Can babies have cacao fruit juice?

No. Juice of any kind should not be given to babies unless directed to do so by a healthcare provider. After the first birthday, small amounts of juice (less than 4 ounces a day, diluted with water to reduce sweetness) may be safely offered. That said, we believe that it is best to wait to serve juice until age two and even then, to limit the amount offered to minimize sugar (including natural sugars) in a child’s diet. Regular and excessive consumption of sweet beverages may reduce the diversity of foods and nutrients consumed and increase the risk of future diabetes, heart disease, and dental caries.18

Is cacao or chocolate a common choking hazard for babies?

Cacao is not a common choking hazard when prepared into other foods such as powders and puddings, but cacao nibs, candies, chocolate bars, and whole cacao beans, in raw or roasted form, absolutely can be. Never serve whole cacao beans to a baby or toddler. As always, make sure you create a safe eating environment and stay within an arm’s reach of baby during meals. For more information on choking, visit our sections on gagging and choking and familiarize yourself with the list of common choking hazards.

Can babies be allergic to chocolate?

Yes. While allergies to cacao itself are uncommon, they are not unheard of.19 In theory, an individual can be allergic to any food. Chocolate products can also contain or be processed with other common food allergens such as milk, soy, tree nuts, sesame, wheat, and eggs, so be sure to read ingredient lists carefully.20 21

As you would when introducing any new food, start by offering a small quantity for the first few servings. If there is no adverse reaction, gradually increase the quantity over future meals.

Can cacao help babies and toddlers poop?

Yes. Cacao offers good amounts of fiber—including prebiotics, which support a diverse gut microbiome—as well as magnesium and flavanols. Together, these components contribute to overall digestive health and bowel regularity.22 23 24 25 The caffeine in chocolate may also help stimulate the urge to poop. Note that pooping patterns can vary significantly from child to child. Be sure to talk to your pediatric healthcare provider if you have concerns about baby’s pooping and digestive function.

How do you introduce cacao and chocolate to babies and toddlers with baby-led weaning?

6 to 12 months old: Avoid, aside from a small taste for a special occasion. Cacao and chocolate products often contain caffeine and sugar—two ingredients that should be minimized in an infant’s diet. Babies under 12 months of age should not be given cacao or chocolate drinks—or any drink other than breast/human milk, formula, or small amounts of water. Fresh or frozen cacao fruit pulp may be offered at this age, as long as the cacao bean has been removed. The small pieces of slippery pulp that can be removed from the bean may be hard for baby to pick up and hold, so consider stirring the pulp pieces into other soft, scoopable foods like yogurt or oatmeal.

12 to 24 months old: While it may be safe to introduce cacao and chocolate in small amounts at this age, we encourage you to wait until after 24 months. Offering a small sip of an alcohol-free cacao or chocolate beverage to a toddler as part of a family gathering is just fine, though it would be wise to wait until the second birthday to serve a whole cup. Continue to offer cacao fruit pulp as desired. Toddlers at this age will be better able to pick up small bits of the fruit on their own, especially if they are rolled in something like shredded coconut to add grip.

24 months and up: Go time! Explore the world of cacao and chocolate as you wish and serve these foods in sweet and savory preparations as part of a balanced diet, keeping tabs on overall sugar consumption. Whole cacao beans continue to pose a high choking risk, so we’d recommend holding off on offering these until at least age 3, or when you are confident in a child’s ability to use their molars for grinding. Cacao nibs, small chunks of raw or roasted cacao beans, are a great way to get the flavor and benefits of chocolate without added sugars—just take care to roughly chop them before offering to toddlers. For older children, try a taste test with two types of chocolate—one bitter and the other sweet to teach about flavor—and invite them into the kitchen to help you prepare a simple recipe with each type. Or you can mix unsweetened cacao powder into smoothies, baked goods, energy balls, and more.

For more on how to help children develop a healthy relationship with sugar, read our Sugar and Taste Preferences page.

What are recipe ideas for cooking with cacao and chocolate?

There are plenty of recipes that call for cacao or chocolate in baked goods, but for those trying to minimize sugar, experiment with cacao and cocoa in savory foods. The acidity and bitter flavor in cacao and cocoa balance rich dishes like beef chili, beef stew, or carne asada. The flavors also work well in barbecue or molé sauce to serve with enchiladas, shredded chicken, pulled pork, or tamales. For vegans and vegetarians, cacao and cocoa can add depth to dishes like bean chili. You can also use cacao and cocoa in easy snacks and breakfasts like banana muffins, energy balls, corn pancakes, and warm porridges.

Recipe: Spiced Hot Chocolate for Toddlers

Yield: 2 cups (480 milliliters)
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Age: 24 months+

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (480 milliliters) whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons (10 grams) unsweetened cacao powder
  • 1 tablespoon (15 milliliters) honey
  • ¼ teaspoon (1 milliliter) vanilla extract (optional)
  • ⅛ teaspoon (~ 1 gram) ground cinnamon
  • 1 pinch chili powder (optional)
  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 1 pinch kosher salt (optional)

This recipe contains a common allergen: dairy (whole milk). Only serve to a child after this allergen has been safely introduced.

Directions

  1. This recipe yields 2 drinks for an adult and a toddler. Feel free to scale up to serve more people. Start by pouring the milk into a small pot. You can swap whole milk for nut milk, soy milk, or any type of milk that has been safely introduced to a child.
  2. Whisk in the cacao powder until there are no clumps and the mixture is frothy. If you’d like to serve a sweeter drink, use sweetened cacao powder or hot cocoa powder.
  3. Stir in the honey. If you prefer, use your preferred sweetener instead. Agave syrup, coconut sugar, maple syrup, and plain granulated sugar all work just fine!
  4. Stir in the seasonings and follow your instincts on which spices to use. Traditional cacao drinks from the Americas are flavored with chiles, honey, and seeds, while elsewhere, cinnamon and vanilla are the seasonings of choice. Experiment a little, or choose your favorite flavors.
  5. Place the pot on medium-low heat and slowly warm the mixture. Stir occasionally to prevent scorching the milk on the bottom of the pan.
  6. When you see steam begin to rise from the mixture, remove the pot from the heat, cover it, and let the hot chocolate steep for 5 minutes.
  7. Pour some hot chocolate into a heatproof cup for the toddler. Let it cool until warm to the touch while keeping the remaining mixture in the covered pot so that it stays hot for adults and older children.
  8. When you are a ready to serve, offer the toddler the cup and if you like, a small bowl with spices. Invite the child to sprinkle some spice on top of the hot chocolate. Drink your serving alongside the child to model how it’s done!

To Store: Spiced Hot Chocolate for Toddlers is best enjoyed to order. However if you would like to make the recipe in advance, you can store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 days, then reheat before serving.

Flavor Pairings

Cacao pairs beautifully with the flavors of amaranth, banana, chia seed, coconut, corn, and rice.

Reviewed by

J. Truppi, MSN, CNS

V. Kalami, MNSP, RD, CSP

A. Derma Salazar MS, CCC-SLP/L

K. Grenawitzke, OTD, OTR/L, SCFES, IBCLC, CNT

S. Bajowala, MD, FAAAAI. Board-Certified Allergist & Immunologist (allergy section)

R. Ruiz, MD, FAAP. Board-Certified General Pediatrician & Pediatric Gastroenterologist

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