Grow Youthful: How to Slow Your Aging and Enjoy Extraordinary Health
Grow Youthful: How to Slow Your Aging and Enjoy Extraordinary Health

Are dark chocolate and raw cacao really healthy?

Cacao / chocolate - the good and the bad

Inflammation, digestive problems from toxins in cacao

Cacao or chocolate addiction

Overstimulation from cacao or chocolate

Avoid chocolate if you suffer from these ailments

References

Cacao / chocolate - the good and the bad

Raw cacao, pure unsweetened cocoa and dark chocolate all have a reputation as health foods. Some vegan and raw food writers even recommend them as healthy, nutrient-rich super food that you should use every day. However, the usual rule applies: beware of the claims for a product when some people are making lots of money from it.

The cacao bean is a mix of both beneficial and toxic compounds. Whether the good will outweigh the bad depends very much on the individual person, the form in which it is consumed (cacao bean, cocoa, dark chocolate, milk chocolate), whether it is consumed daily or just occasionally, and of course what quantity is eaten.

Chocolate (or cocoa or cacao beans) are not something to use in food quantities every day (several squares per day). Milk chocolate even less so, being more processed and having a higher sugar content. However, some people may find that they feel good when they use dark chocolate or cacao beans as a supplement. You really have to experiment to find what level may suit you, and be honest about the situation if you are addicted.

Cacao beans

Inflammation, digestive problems from toxins in cacao

If you are suffering from chronic inflammation, first attend to any obvious food allergies. Next, avoid all grains, legumes, sugar, alcohol, caffeine and chocolate - they all cause inflammation in the gut and elsewhere in the body.

Cacao beans contain exceptionally high levels of phytic acid. Raw unfermented cocoa beans contain the most; after the beans are fermented and processed the level is lower, depending on how the chocolate is made. Phytates are anti-nutrients that bind to the minerals you consume (particularly magnesium, zinc and copper) and make them unavailable to your body. Phytates also decrease the activity of digestive enzymes like amylase, pepsin and trypsin. Weak digestion is associated with nutrient deficiencies, leaky gut, inflammation of the colon, and autoimmune disorders.

Cacao contains high levels of purine, which causes gout and may contribute to some forms of arthritis.

Some brands of dark chocolate and other cacao products contain high levels of heavy metals, particularly cadmium and lead. Heavy metals are associated with numerous mental health issues, as well as chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is not something you should be consuming if you have high levels of lead or cadmium in your body. A hair test is a quick way to get an indication of whether you have high levels of these two heavy metals, and a blood test for lead and cadmium will provide a more accurate and definitive result.

The cacao bean contains theobromine, a bitter-tasting alkaloid. It also contains theophylline and caffeine. Most people can handle small quantities of these chemicals, but those who are overly sensitive or elderly (and most animals, such as dogs) may suffer a negative effect on the central nervous system. The cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and endocrine systems can also be over-stimulated. This can cause or worsen anxiety, adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, depression, nervousness, insomnia, gastrointestinal disorders, nausea, nervous disorders, osteoporosis, oedema, heart and circulation disorders and many more ailments.

Aflatoxin is a toxic form of mould that can cause cancer and other ailments. It is sometimes found in high concentrations in cacao and peanuts. Lower concentrations are found in other nuts and some cereal crops.

Cacao is high in oxalic acid, which blocks the absorption of some minerals (particularly calcium, iron, magnesium, sodium and potassium) and irritates the digestive tract.

The good news is that smaller quantities of theobromine may improve insulin response, lowers blood pressure, and protects against cardiovascular disease. (1, 2, 3, 4)

Cacao beans are a good bacterial prebiotic. Chocolate affects the brain and the production of brain hormones by feeding and promoting gut microorganisms. (4) These bacteria directly produce some hormones, and also help in establishing a healthy and diverse gut biome.

Cocoa is one of the richest sources of flavonoids, which have an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effect. The good bacteria in your gut love them, so cocoa is a good prebiotic. Moderate fermented cacao bean or black chocolate consumption promotes cardiovascular health, helps combat diabetes or metabolic syndrome, and can help with obesity.

Cocoa butter (the fat from the cacao bean) is a good and health-giving saturated fat. Raw cacao contains high levels of antioxidants and minerals, particularly magnesium.

Cacao or chocolate addiction

Cacao stimulates the production of serotonin, endorphins and dopamine. These feel-good neurotransmitters are involved in regulating mood, pain, sleep and appetite. Sufficient levels of these neurotransmitters are needed for good physical and mental health. However, the stimulation of high levels of any of these neurotransmitters produces feelings of intense pleasure, euphoria, well-being and reduction of pain. Drugs such as opioids, amphetamines and alcohol can over-stimulate dopamine, endorphins and serotonin and cause dependence. Cacao does this too.

Cacao contains phenylethylamine, the "fall-in-love-feeling" amphetamine. It also contains anandamide, an endocannabinoid similar to that in marijuana.

Interestingly, naloxone, an opiate-blocking drug that is used to counter the effects of a heroin overdose, has been found to eliminate the craving for chocolate and make chocolate completely unappealing.

Chocolate makes you feel good and is actually a mind-altering, addictive drug. In the long term, overstimulation of neurotransmitters causes the brain to cut back on their normal production, causing further chocolate consumption and dependence.

Other consequences include insomnia, depression, anxiety, obesity, hyperactivity, elevation of chronic pain, fatigue, nervousness, adrenal fatigue and severe mood swings.

Overstimulation from cacao or chocolate

Raw cacao over-stimulates the nervous system and particularly the heart. The immediate symptom is a racing heartbeat, which may soon be followed by trembling and nervousness, anxiety attacks, hyperactivity, irritability and a headache.

Some of cacao's chemicals overstimulate the autonomic nervous system, putting the body in a fight or flight state. Regular consumption of chocolate eventually causes symptoms like high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, heart arrhythmia, insomnia, depression, headaches, migraines, tachycardia, overactive bladder and many other ailments.

Chocolate stimulates the adrenal glands, causing you to feel alert and energised. However, this overstimulation eventually causes adrenal exhaustion. In this case you can actually become dependent on cacao or chocolate to overcome feelings of fatigue, anxiety, moodiness, depression and so on.

Another consequence is that when the stress response system is activated, glucose is released into the blood stream. This causes a rise in insulin. Avoiding a high level of insulin and instead keeping it steady and low throughout the day is the main focus of my book Grow Youthful. Low and steady insulin means good health over a long life. In contrast, by raising blood insulin level, daily milk or sweet chocolate consumption can contribute to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, obesity and other ailments.

Avoid (too much) chocolate if you suffer from these ailments

References

1. Davide Grassi, Cristina Lippi, Stefano Necozione, Giovambattista Desideri, and Claudio Ferri. Short-term administration of dark chocolate is followed by a significant increase in insulin sensitivity and a decrease in blood pressure in healthy persons. Am J Clin Nutr March 2005 vol. 81 no. 3 611-614.

2. Roberto Corti, Andreas J. Flammer, Norman K. Hollenberg, Thomas F. Luscher. Cocoa and Cardiovascular Health Circulation. 2009; 119: 1433-1441. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.108.827022.

3. Rafael Franco, Ainhoa Onatibia-Astibia,Eva Martinez-Pinilla. Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate. Nutrients 2013, 5(10), 4159-4173; doi:10.3390/nu5104159.

4. Ellam S, Williamson G. Cocoa and human health. Annu Rev Nutr. 2013;33:105-28.