Chocolate and Cacao
Coffee lovers tend to be very protective of their morning pick-me-up, so they often seem to overlook or undervalue studies that prove any of the negative effects of caffeine. Chocolate lovers usually do the same. There are plenty of studies that claim chocolate is healthy, explaining that it is packed with antioxidants and important minerals, and we love these studies because we love our chocolate just as much as we love our cup of joe. And while caffeine is healthy for those who already are healthy, with chocolate it can be more complicated. Chocolate consumption should be evaluated based on your current state of health, but also on what you are actually calling chocolate. But before we dive into the details about who chocolate is actually healthy for and why, lets learn a few things about where this magical treat comes from.
Raw, 100% pure chocolate is actually considered a whole, real food, so this is what we are going to call real chocolate for the purpose of this article. Real chocolate actually grows on Theobroma Cacao trees, inside of a cacao fruit pod in the form of cacao beans (they are called beans, just like coffee beans, but neither of these are legumes). The first evidence of chocolate consumption comes from Mexico, dating back to roughly 4000 years ago, while modern chocolate production began in 1828. Today, cacao trees are grown in Mexico, Africa, South America, and Asia, on both small farms and large plantations. Pods that grow on these tall trees are harvested, and the seeds are then piled in wooden boxes and covered for a few days to ferment. Fermentation destroys most of the phytic acid, just like soaking does in nuts, and it also inhibits the seeds from sprouting. The cacao beans are then left to dry for a couple of weeks, which allows the flavor to develop and all of the moisture to evaporate.
Once the beans are dry, they are roasted in large ovens, quickly cooled, and their outer shell is mechanically removed. In this dried, roasted, and unshelled form, cacao beans are called (and sold as) cacao nibs. To continue with the chocolate production process, cacao nibs are crushed and ground into a chocolate liquor, a liquid paste that solidifies at room temperature and creates cacao mass, which is basically what you can purchase labeled as 100% pure chocolate (this is my favorite brand that only has shredded coconut added). Chocolate liquor can also be pressurized to separate cacao butter from the cacao mass, and the leftover cacao cake is later crushed into cocoa powder and sold as such. Cacao butter can be used to make white chocolate and it is an excellent ingredient for homemade cosmetics. I also like to blend a small piece of cacao butter into my coffee.
Cacao and cocoa look and sound similar, but they are actually two different things. Cacao powder has more fiber than cocoa powder, it is a great source of fats, vitamins, and minerals, while cocoa powder is a term used for cacao powder that was either processed with high temperature, mixed with other ingredients (mostly sugar), or alkalized during the production process called Dutch-processing (you can find this powder in stores as Dutch Cocoa). Cocoa still contains the nutrients cacao powder has, but in a smaller amount. They can be used interchangeably, though cacao powder has more nutritional value. Chocolate liquor, cacao mass, and cacao butter are later used as ingredients for other products that contain chocolate, usually by adding sugar, milk, and other ingredients. The amount of cocoa in the resulting product always depends on how much sugar (and other ingredients) is added to the mixture.
Real chocolate is a wonderful source of healthy saturated fats, mostly stearic acid that doesn’t negatively affect our cholesterol levels. Dark chocolate also helps to lower blood pressure, mostly because of flavanols present in cacao. These antioxidants are probably the most potent compounds found in real chocolate. They improve cardiovascular health, help with insulin resistance, inflammation in a fatty liver, and even protect consumers from UV damage. This post digs even deeper into all the benefits of the antioxidants present in cacao and chocolate. Dark chocolate is also a good source of iron, magnesium, copper, and manganese. Very often when we have chocolate cravings, we aren’t actually craving sugar. Intense desire specifically for chocolate can be a sign of mineral deficiency, particularly magnesium and iron, so instead of running to the store and grabbing a cheap milk chocolate bar full of sugar, address your mineral deficiency with other real food sources like red meat, green vegetables, or raw, quality dark chocolate. Women tend to crave chocolate more often than men do; if you want to find out why, check out this great post by the Wellness Mama!
So the short answer to the question Is chocolate healthy? is the following: for healthy individuals, real chocolate is okay, and can even be a source of nutrients, but most products on the market that are made with chocolate are not healthy at all. They are usually loaded with sugar, milk, soy lecithin, and all kinds of preservatives, emulsifiers, or stabilizers and the final product actually has nothing to do with real chocolate. For example, Hershey’s milk chocolate bar only contains 11% cacao, which means the remaining 89% of the bar is a mix of sugar, milk, and a variety of artificial compounds. The highest quality chocolate only contains pure cacao (100% chocolate) with the addition of cacao butter and sugar (for example, when you see a label that says 90% chocolate, it is 90% pure cacao and 10% sugar, or a mix of sugar and cacao butter, depending on the brand). High-quality chocolate is usually more expensive than the sugar loaded chocolate-like products, but it actually does have some benefits, as chocolate lovers like to point out. So yes, chocolate in its raw form is healthy for a healthy person. Your current health condition always matters the most when considering whether any food is healthy. The question you should always ask is: Is this food healthy for me? If you suffer from any autoimmune-related conditions, you should really think twice about adding chocolate, even the high quality ones, into your diet. One of the reasons is the fact that chocolate contains a small amount of caffeine (less than a cup of coffee, but if you are caffeine intolerant, this amount might be very problematic for your body to deal with), and some studies even showed that cacao (and therefore chocolate) might even be a gluten cross-reactive food.
However, this study shows that this is not the case. For autoimmune patients it is generally recommended to eliminate both caffeine and cacao/chocolate for at least 30 days, and then slowly reintroduce them once your body starts healing. Eileen from Phoenix Helix put together a great post about chocolate and the most common health concerns that come with the consumption of this rich, delicious, creamy goodness, noting that most of the negatives associated with eating chocolate have nothing to do with the cacao itself, but rather added sugar and other ingredients added to the mix. I remember a study from the past that was meant to prove how unhealthy meat consumption is, and in the trial, subjects were fed pizza with meat on top. Simple logic can tell you that the gluten loaded crust of the pizza is a way bigger problem than any kind of processed meat on top of it. For it to have been an effective test, it would have been wiser to test with steak or roasted chicken where fewer variable are involved. With chocolate or more specifically cacao, it is the same. Context (and the ingredients on the label) matters a lot.
We can all agree that a candy bar loaded with sugar, coated in milk chocolate with 30% cocoa and 70% white sugar mixed with soy lecithin is not very healthy. Studies that have proven the health benefits of chocolate only apply to cacao mass, so the more cacao your chocolate bar has, the better. I would recommend choosing one that is organic, with over 70% cocoa. I prefer the richest chocolate possible, either 100% or 90%. My favorite local brand uses cane sugar and no other additives. I also like Vivani 92% bar that is sweetened with coconut sugar only. Mark Sisson shares his favorites in this post as well. I always considered myself a chocolate lover, even though I consumed all the fake Hershey’s and Milka bars that have nothing to do with the real stuff. High-quality chocolate might seem a bit bitter and acidic for you at first, but once your taste buds heal from the sugar overload, you will actually be able to appreciate the slight bitterness of a rich dark chocolate. Treat your chocolate as a real food, because as one of my favorite brands slogan says: Chocolate is food, not candy.