It seems we have been duped by the health and nutrition marketing and media geniuses yet again and by ‘we’ I mean myself included. (Hangs head in shame….) I went through the whole phase of raw chocolate everything about the same time I dabbled in a completely raw diet (as I am my biggest guinea pig).
I fell hook, line, and sinker, as have, most probably, many of you, for the ‘superfood’ aspect of raw cacao and its high nutrient value including, according to the hype, high in polyphenols (remember the red wine craze anyone??) and other antioxidants, protein, and fiber, even essential B vitamins and vitamin E. Raw cacao was touted to help boost immunity, lower blood pressure, promote cardiovascular health, and neutralize those nasty free radicals.
Raw cacao/raw chocolate is touted as the answer to your prayers, to help you leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Why, I can’t see why, with all these ‘benefits’ cacao wasn’t marketed as ‘the only food you will ever need’. Then again, how would they sell you all the other ‘superfood’ potions and powders if they used this slogan?
Don’t get me wrong. I love chocolate. Lovely dark chocolate with names like Callebaut and Valrhona make me melt with pleasure and indulgence. And that’s exactly what chocolate should be; a lovely indulgence. Keep in mind that indulgences like chocolate have to be respected due to the dose-response relationship of good quality dark chocolate which can cause similar symptoms of coffee over use such as euphoria, anxiety, ‘the jitters’, etc.
Why don’t I consider chocolate a ‘superfood’?
Once you get past all the USDA and American Dietetics Association recommendations and then toss out all the dietary ‘dogma’ that you tend to learn on your journey to becoming a nutritionist and you really start to delve deep into Integrative Medicine and biochemistry (otherwise known as the slow road to a PhD) you learn quickly to look past all the ‘buzz’ and actually read the ‘studies’ and break through the often ‘pseudo science’ that comes with nutrition fads.
The fact is, the very nature of the word ‘superfood’ encourages food fanaticism by saying “This food is superior to other foods in certain vitamins, minerals or other compounds so buy them and eat them almost exclusive to other foods”. I know that may sound harsh but look around at all the people drinking smoothies laced with chlorella, spirulina, maca root (though this one does have its place at times), camu camu, Peruvian lacuma, let’s not forget Açaí and many other newly discovered (mostly from the ‘mysterious rain forest’) roots, twigs, berries, or fungi all ground into powders so you can buy them all and harvest their ‘super powers that promise you will be rich, thin and good looking ward off aging or degenerative illness. It’s embarrassing how gullible we can all be!
A superfood by definition is a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being. To met that means a nutrient dense food that is easily digested (and meant for human consumption) and assimilated into the body without a lot of anti-nutrients (or better yet any) present to keep the body from absorbing all the vitamins and minerals it needs to be balanced, healthy and strong. Superfoods like gelatin and bone broth and slow roasted bone in gelatin rich meats that heal the gut, pro-thyroid natural sugars from ripe and tropical fruit and root and low ground veggies, adrenal balancing sea salt, wild seafood, pastured eggs, healthy saturated traditional fats from pastured animals, coconut oil, pastured butter, oh and let’s not forget liver and other offal for the richest sources of folate, Vitamin A, B12 and many other co-factors needed for vibrant health.
Again chocolate is a source of a host of vitamins, minerals and compounds, but in raw cacao, your body can’t reach them, and what’s worse….will bind to other nutrients in the body and carry them right out of your body. That is the the antithesis of a superfood.
What’s lurking in your raw cacao?
First of all, let’s talk about the high level of phytates, lectins and other toxins present in raw cacao (which is actually a misnomer because most raw cacao producers ferment their beans at higher temperatures than could be considered raw, but I digress…). Phytic acid is the storage form of phosphorous that cannot be digested by humans. (Animals can digest them due to special enzymes or digestive processes which is why we were meant to eat ruminant animals.) Phytic acid (phytates) bind to minerals (namely iron and zinc but also magnesium, calcium, chromium and manganese ) and prevent us from assimilating them. Raw cacao contains between 1684-1796 milligrams per 100 grams of phytic acid. That’s a lot of phytates. For those who think “Yeah, but who is going to eat 100 grams of raw cacao powder?” you have a point but think about the fact that if you eat even a few tablespoons, if you are eating them with nuts or in a dish containing grain those ingredients contain phytates as well. If you eat a square of raw chocolate bar, the exposure to phytic acid may be minimal but who really only eats one square? Bear in mind, most people think a little of a touted superfood is good but a LOT is better!!
Raw cacao is marketed to be very high in magnesium. If phytates bind to magnesium rendering it virtually useless to us as humans, does it really matter if it is high in magnesium at all? Raw cacao must go through some sort of fermentation process and many use the sun as their main fermentation source. Most of these producers tout ‘partial fermentation’ of only 1 to 2 days, however, which means the anti-nutrients such as theobromine, hydrocyanate and oxalates are still locked in the bean as longer fermentation processes are the only way to reduce these anti-nutrients significantly. One study suggested fermentation times as long as 12 days are needed to reduce these anti-nutrients significantly to be even remotely healthy for consumption.
What about all those lovely antioxidants?? It turns out that roasting actually increases antioxidant flavanol availability by between 400 to 650%!
Ancient South American cultures dating back to the Olmecs (1500 B.C. to 100 B.C.) knew how to ferment, roast and grind the beans to fully harness the power of the mystical cacao bean. They passed this down to the Mayans and this filtered down through South American civilizations (who used them as currency to trade within their community and their neighbors to the north, the Central Americans) until it finally reached the banks of Europe. It took a lot of intuitive knowledge to process the beans to make them edible and inevitably utilize the “food of the gods” it was known to be.
For those who may be ‘raw foodists’ extolling the virtues of enzymes in raw cacao, let me offer you this little tidbit of information. There are no studies that support the fact that enzymes present in raw cacao are even beneficial for humans and many studies still that suggest that consuming raw cacao over the long term could have devastating effects on health. If ancient cultures roasted their beans and even then only consumed the fruit of the cacao who are we to argue with traditional wisdom??
Now, let’s talk about the scary side of raw cacao. For all those that read The Dark Side of Coffee you are already aware of the term mycotoxin. For those who are coming late to the party, mycotoxins, and in this case Ochratoxin A and Aflotoxin, are essentially toxic molds that are immunosuppressive, neurotoxic (meaning it destroys nerve tissue), carcinogenic (cancer causing), birth defect and genetic mutation causing, and kidney damaging.
Raw cacao is full of these mycotoxins. Even reputable companies tend to harvest their beans from small farms (most claim to be fair trade which means they intentionally look for small communities). Most of these communities (in Central and South America) are poor and lack proper sanitary conditions for the fermentation process touted by many producers (“fermented in the sun” is a prized claim by many raw cacao producers). With fermentation often comes humidity and humidity is a breeding ground for toxic mold.
In one key study over 98% of chocolate samples coming from South America contained Ochratoxin A and 80% of those samples also contains Aflotoxin.
Let me break it down for you.
Phytic acid and other anti-nutrients- BAD
Toxic mold in the form of mycotoxins-BAD
A feast for your senses!
High quality dark chocolate is truly a sensual pleasure. A square or two after dinner, a decadent cup of cocoa (with raw milk and gelatin added, of course) before bed, this is the stuff dreams are made. I have eaten my way through French chocalateries all over Paris. I have never turned down a good dark Italian ciocalata calda and I have watched in awe in Peru as natives still prepare their beloved cacao bean the ancient way. The darker the better, I say.
Still, if I am honest (and if you are really honest with yourselves), raw chocolate in the form of bars or truffles have left me cold. Decisively bitter, lacking in silkiness and ‘mouth feel’, and having no real depth of flavor, I have had the misfortune pleasure of sampling some of the most respected and even highest quality artisanal raw chocolate available. While I respect greatly the craft of anyone endeavoring to make chocolate, I find the steps to making chocolate with roasted beans to be somewhat luxurious in nature. (Anyone else want to be Juliet Binoche in the movie Chocolat for her sheer ability to create ‘Nipples of Venus’ from cocoa nibs??)
I know everyone has their own taste and I respect everyone’s own desires when it comes to chocolate but I often wonder how many people claim to really love raw chocolate simply because they believe they are supposed to love it for its ‘health’ value. How many of us trick our mouths and bodies into thinking something is really delicious because we are hoping secretly it will unlock the fountain of youth or at the very least the gift of perfect health?
As someone who lives in the land of crappy milk chocolate (the Lebanese have certainly never learned to appreciate the sumptuousness of a really stellar dark chocolate with Patchi being their idea of top quality chocolate I am sorry to say) I nearly cried the other day when someone presented me a packet of Scharffen Berger dark chocolate bars. I am fortunate not to have to lock them up in the safe as Galaxy milk chocolate reigns supreme in my house, our family not yet having acquired a taste for the extravagant decadence that is quality (roasted) dark chocolate but I have to say, I am rationing them carefully. I may just have to make my famous Soufflé au Chocolát for dessert tomorrow!