If there ever was a single word that was more lyrical than a Shakespearean sonnet it would be “chocolate”.  I don’t know a single woman whose heart doesn’t palpitate at the mere thought of something chocolate. (Actually I do know a few but they are allergic so that’s a different story.) There are entire holidays revolving around chocolate.  If you think about it, don’t all of them?  Blogs are devoted to this divine creation.  (One of my favorites happens to be My Chocolate Peaces who I love simply because she loves Green & Black’s as much as I do!)

When I am working with clients who are, seemingly, addicted to chocolate, it is one of the toughest foods to reduce.  I swear, to most of my clients, it is an entire food group.  Luckily many are hooked on milk chocolate and the real addiction comes from the casein in the milk (which is an opiate to the brain) and the sugar, oh the sugar so once they really get used to a healthier way of eating sans the sugar, the milk chocolate isn’t all that hard to ditch.  As their tastes change, I even manage to be able to get them to fall in love with dark chocolate, which, in moderation, is still a delicious treat and a strong source of essential minerals.

Our purpose of this article is to discuss “raw” cacao and the pros and the cons of its use.  After all, chocolate, before it was processed to death to become a Snicker’s Bar (and yes, I am gagging as I write this because I think this is about as fake of a chocolate as Pamela Anderson’s….well….pick a part.)

Yesterday we mentioned the term “partisan nutrition politics” and, unfortunately, even with cacao, there are two camps even on whether or not it is a superfood or a demon seed.  So let’s delve into both sides of the argument, and, hopefully, as always, find the truth somewhere in the middle.

The case for cacao

A brief history

Cacao (the theobroma cacao tree)  was, traditionally, used by native cultures in South America, such as the Mayans and Aztecs, for its medicinal properties. It was the Olmecs,  an ancient tribe  (1200 to 300 B.C.), from the tropical lowlands of South Central Mexico who were the first to domesticate the plant and use the beans. They had a name for these bitter seeds that held secrets to health and power: kakawa, or cacao. According to recent archaeologists’ findings, the beans formed an integral base of this ancient civilization’s diet and culture from as early as 600 B.C.  Later (some 900 years later)  the Mayans would the consume the flowers for energy and stamina and the uses the leaves for reduction of fever, “weak hearts” and respiratory ailments.   They used the beans (what we traditionally consume today) for more….(ahem)…. psychedelic endeavors. Ancient civilizations believed that cacao had a divine origin and was given by the god Sovereign Plumed Serpent to the Maya. The Maya still celebrate the cacao God yearly in April by offerings and exchanging of gifts.  These ancient civilizations  considered cacao as an intoxicant and only allowed the use of cacao as food to adult males.

Columbus was the first European to discover cacao as he noted the Aztecs, who reserved cacao for the rich and noble,  used it  as a form of currency. He was unaware of its culinary or medicinal uses.   In 1554, cacao, prepared as a beverage, was introduced to the Spanish court and shortly afterwards, the culinary use of cacao become widespread in Western Europe.

 

Factoid:: Monkeys were the first to find the cacao plant edible and delectable, not man. They would eat the pulp, which tasted like apricots or melon, and spit out the bitter and seemingly inedible seeds!

Am I allergic to chocolate?

A recent study showed that only one out of 500 people who thought they were allergic to chocolate actually tested positive. Allergies to chocolate are quite rare. It is typically the case that the person is in fact allergic to milk and dairy products. Some people can be allergic to cooked and processed chocolate but are not allergic to Cacao.

Does Cacao Contain Caffeine?

Contrary to popular opinion, cacao is a poor source of caffeine. A typical sample of cacao nibs or cacao beans will yield anywhere from zero caffeine to 1,000 parts per million of caffeine (less than 1/20th of the caffeine present in coffee).

In February 2008, Dr. Gabriel Cousens discovered in clinical tests on healthy people that Cacao does not elevate blood sugar in the same way as a caffeine containing food or beverage. In fact, Dr. Cousens’ found that cacao has less of an effect on blood sugar than nearly any other food.

 Cacao is the Best Natural Food Source of the Following Nutrients:

Magnesium: Cacao seems to be the #1 source of magnesium of any food. Magnesium is one of the great alkaline minerals. It helps to support the heart, brain, and digestive system (it fights constipation). Magnesium is also important for building strong bones. Magnesium is the most deficient major mineral on the Standard American Diet (SAD); over 80% of Americans are chronically deficient in Magnesium!

Iron: Cacao contains 314% of the U.S. RDA of iron per 1 ounce (28 gram) serving. Iron is a critical mineral in nutrition. Iron is part of the oxygen carrying protein called hemoglobin that keeps our blood healthy.

Chromium: Chromium is an important trace mineral that helps balance blood sugar. Nearly 80% of Americans are deficient in this trace mineral.

Cacao Also Contains the Following Important Unique Nutrients:

Manganese: Manganese is an essential trace mineral. Manganese helps assist iron in the oxygenation of the blood and formation of hemoglobin. Interestingly, manganese is also concentrated in tears.

Zinc: Zinc is an essential trace mineral. Zinc plays a critical role in the immune system, liver, pancreas, and skin. Additionally, zinc is involved in thousands of enzymatic reactions throughout the human body, including fertility.

Copper: Copper is an essential trace mineral. Copper is found naturally in plants with vitamin C. In the human body, copper helps to build healthy blood.

Vitamin C: Cacao must be raw to contain vitamin C. All cooked and processed chocolate has no vitamin C. A one ounce (28 gram) serving of Cacao Nibs supplies 21% of the U.S. RDA of Vitamin C.

Omega 6 Fatty Acids: Cacao contains essential omega 6 fatty acids. Most cooked and processed chocolate contains rancid omega 6 fatty acids (trans-fat) that can cause an inflammatory reaction when one eats cooked chocolate. 

Phenethylamine (PEA): Phenylethylamine (PEA) is found in abundance in cacao. Because PEA is heat sensitive, much of the PEA in conventional cooked and processed chocolate is missing. PEA is the chemical that we produce in our bodies when we fall in love (incidentally also when we have an orgasm). This is likely one of the main reasons why love and chocolate have such a deep connection. PEA also plays a role in increasing focus and alertness.

Tryptophan: Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is transformed into important stress-protective neurotransmitters including serotonin and melatonin. Tryptophan is heat sensitive and therefore it is “cooked out” in many high protein foods and in conventional processed chocolate.

Serotonin: Serotonin is the primary neurotransmitter in the human body. Serotonin is similar in its chemistry to tryptophan and melatonin. Serotonin helps us build up our “stress defense shield.”

Anandamide: Anandamide (The Bliss Chemical) is an endorphin that the human body naturally produces after exercise. Anandamide has only been found in one plant — Cacao. Anandamide is known as “The Bliss Chemical” because it is released while we are feeling great.

Theobromine: Cacao usually contains about 1% theobromine. Theobromine is an effective anti-bacterial substance and kills streptococci mutans (the primary organism that causes cavities).  It also can help with respiratory ailments, opening up by loosening up bronchi.

Antioxidants: Cacao contains the highest concentration of antioxidants of any food in the world. These antioxidants include polyphenols, catechins, and epicatechins. By weight, Cacao has more antioxidants than red wine, blueberries, acai, pomegranates, COMBINED.  These antioxidants are brilliant for treating chronic inflammation.

The Dark Side of Chocolate

Yes, sorry ladies, there is a big dark side of chocolate.  Cacao, though hugely rich in all the essential compounds listed above, is also probably the richest source of phytic acid on the planet.  (I may be slightly exaggerating on the “richest source” part but it’s up there.)  Phytic acid is an anti-nutrient which binds to trace minerals such as zinc and iron and macro minerals such as calcium and magnesium.  The phytic acid is concentrated in the seed, which is the source of cacao.

Fermenting the bean, either through heat (which destroys the antioxidant and polyphenol content rendering the cacao not nearly as nutritional), or through natural low-temperature “raw” means, (which maintains much of the polyphenol and antioxidant content but can encourage microbial growth) lessens the effects of the phytic acid but it does not eliminate it.  This means that some of the richness of the zinc and magnesium content of cacao is negated.

Also, bear in mind, even though only the poor soy bean has been vilified, all nuts and seeds, and beans contain some anti-nutrients and also have some phytoestrogenic qualities.  (Meaning they mimic estrogen in the body.) Granted, these estrogen molecules are bigger than the average xenoestrogen molecule, or even the body’s own estrogen molecules, but too much is still too much.   In fact, though I do love my raw chocolate brazil nut shake , I make it only every week or so.  I do not add cacao powder to everything as a superfood though I do love it as an antioxidant mask.

The fact is, even the Mayans and Aztecs used to ferment and roast their cacao beans and grind them right before they were used to make their “energy drinks”.  (This was the original Red Bull!)  They intuitively knew they needed to prepare the beans to make them useful for their bodies.

I urge my clients to consume a little dark chocolate a few times a week but to eat the freshest small-batch chocolate they can possibly find.  Luckily, in most metropolitan areas there are artisanal chocolatiers like The Chocolate Conspiracy in Salt Lake City, Utah which produce healthy, small batch, high quality REAL chocolate.  I do still have a few recipes that I use raw cacao powder (properly fermented, of course), however, I have taken to using a chocolate paste (My absolute favorite, worth every penny is the Pacari Truly Raw Cacao Paste Arriba) in my smoothies as the cacao paste has about 50% cocoa butter which is a lovely protective tropical fat.  

To summarize, be smart about what the media tells you about the health benefits of chocolate.  A few squares every few days, and even then, only artisanal small-batch dark chocolate to avoid rancidity (though Green&Black’s generally is a more mass produced brand I trust) can be a great source of key essential minerals.  Eat too much of it, or with too much dairy or sugar, it becomes addictive and counter productive to a healthy lifestyle.

Do not avoid it if you do not have a sensitivity nor add it liberally every single day to smoothies, desserts, and however else you would normally overdo superfood wise.

A little goes a long way.  The key is a variety of nutrient dense foods rotated regularly in a healthy eating plan, and balance, always balance.