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Is Raw Cacao or Dark Chocolate Really Healthy?

Anxiety and Depression
I recently had a brief discussion about raw cacao with a client during a consultation that I thought would be helpful to share with others.

This client was consulting with me about food sensitivities and wanted to know if they could eat raw cacao. When someone has food sensitivities, it means the integrity of the gut has been compromised, what is sometimes called leaky gut. To heal the gut, a variety of foods that are known to aggravate the gut should be removed from the diet. In addition to the foods one is sensitive to, alcohol, caffeine, grains, legumes sugar and chocolate should also be avoided, because these foods are inflammatory by nature to the gut.

As I attempted to explain that chocolate was one of these foods that should be avoided, my client adamantly proclaimed that raw cacao was indeed healthy. I attempted to explain that this was not true and why, but they were clearly annoyed with me and changed the subject. We moved on to other topics and finished our consultation.

Is Raw Cacao and Dark Chocolate Really Healthy?

My client, like many other people, has been misinformed by the big movement in the raw food community to believe that raw cacao is one of the healthiest foods in the world you can eat and you should eat as much of it as you can. These statements are simply not true and in my opinion are motivated by addiction and money.

Manufacturers of raw cacao are making a great profit on this healthy marketing hype and charging top dollar for something that really isn’t much better for you than a cheap chocolate bar from the grocery story. Chocolate addicts, like all addicts, are always looking for a way to justify the usage or consumption of their drug of choice and get angry when you try to tell them otherwise. Just like alcoholics love to hear that a beer a day or a glass of wine has some health benefits, when we all really know better. No matter how you cut it, eating chocolate, or raw cacao, on a regular basis is not healthy.

Proponents of raw cacao and dark chocolate will say that their is a difference between raw and refined chocolate. The primary difference is that raw cacao contains high levels of antioxidants and minerals, while refined chocolate does not. However, the issues I am focusing on in this post are true regardless of whether we are talking about refined chocolate, dark chocolate or raw cacao.

Supporters of the raw cacao craze tell us that it is healthy for us because it is very high in antioxidants and magnesium. Well that may be true, but you must look at the overall nutritional value of a food to determine its level of healthiness, not just one component. The negative aspects that are inherent in chocolate in any form far outweigh the positives.

Raw cacao contains over 300 naturally occurring chemicals and many of them are detrimental to the human body and mind when consumed on a regular basis. Many of them could be considered toxins. Some of the most potent, harmful and disconcerting include theobromind, theophylline and caffeine. These chemicals have a devastating effect on the central nervous system, gastrointestinal system, cardiovascular and endocrine system and can result in depression, anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, gastrointestinal disorders, adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, nausea, nervous disorders, osteoporosis, heart and circulation disorders and many more. The chemicals in raw cacao are actually much more potent than processed chocolate, because they are presented to us in raw form.

Aflatoxin, which is a carcinogenic mycotoxin produced by certain species of mold, that many people are sensitive to is also found in very high numbers in cacao, but that is true of peanuts and pistachios as well. Aflatoxins are also found in grains like rice, wheat and corn. It’s also high in oxalic acid which can inhibit absorption of calcium.

In addition to that, raw cacao stimulates high levels of serotonin, endorphins and dopamine, three crucial neurotransmitters involved in regulating mood, pain, sleep and appetite, and the cycle of addiction, and has high levels of other chemicals like phenylethylamine and anandamide.

Serotonin is our natural anti-depressant, dopamine provides feelings of happiness, pleasure, focus and attention, and endorphins are our natural pain relievers. Sufficient levels of neurotransmitters are needed for good physical and mental health, however, high levels of any of these neurotransmitters produces feelings of intense pleasure, euphoria, well-being and reduction of pain. For example, people become addicted to opiods because they increase endorphins, amphetamines because they increase dopamine and alcohol because it increases dopamine, endorphins and serotonin.

Phenylethylamine is an amphetamine that stimulates dopamine receptors and increases pulse, blood sugar levels, alertness and blood pressure. Phenylethlamine occurs naturally in our brain and is the chemical released when we fall in love and thus why many people are addicted to falling in love and have serial relationships. However, the phenylethylamine that occurs naturally is much lower in quantity and potency than chocolate.

Anandamide is an endocannabinoid , a neurotransmitter that is affected with marijuana use and addiction, thus, providing a similar kind of a high. Endocannabinoids affect sensory and time perception, pleasure, appetite, pain, coordination, concentration, memory, thought and movement and have a dampening effect on all other neurotransmitters. They, too, are naturally occurring in the brain, but marijuana and chocolate cause excessive stimulation, which produces the high.

Naloxone, an opiate blocking drug that is used to reverse the effects of a heroin overdose, has been found to also eliminate cravings and desire for chocolate. As a matter of fact, Naloxone will make chocolate completely unappealing. Thus, demonstrating that the brain is affected by chocolate in the same way as opiates.

This is why chocolate makes you feel so good and is so addictive. You are essentially high when you eat chocolate. The presence of these chemicals actually indicate that raw cacao is a mind-altering, addictive drug. Raw cacao overstimulates or mimics neurotransmitters in the brain, just like hard drugs like cocaine and morphine. Overstimulation or mimicking of neurotransmitters causes the brain to cut back on production as it is tricked into thinking it has too many and this leads to depletion of neurotransmitters and tolerance.

Depletion of neurotransmitters leads to addiction, as well as a variety of other health issues like neurotransmitter imbalances, insomnia, depression, anxiety, obesity, hyperactivity, chronic pain, fatigue, nervousness, adrenal fatigue, and violence. Chocolate in any form stimulates feelings of euphoria, which keep us coming back for more. If high dosages of raw cacao are consumed, hallucinations can occur.

When you eat chocolate or raw cacao, it’s as if you have toked a little off a joint, drank a bit of wine, snorted some cocaine and shot up some heroin all at the same time, because it stimulates endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and anandamide in the same manner as these drugs. It is somewhat less potent than the harder drugs; but still the exact same process in the brain. It is no wonder the world is in love with chocolate.

Many of these chemicals are also overstimulating to the autonomic nervous system and thrust the body into a state of fight or flight. If eaten on a continuous basis, it can lead to chronic dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, which results in a wide array of psychological and physiological symptoms like high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, heart pounding, inability to sleep, depression, headaches, migraines, tachycardia, overactive bladder and much more.

All this impact on neurotransmitters and the autonomic nervous system has a detrimental impact on the adrenal glands because they cause overstimulation to this organ as well. When the adrenal glands are over stimulated, they are called upon to continually release cortisol and other stress hormones, this is what results in the feelings of alertness and energy when raw cacao is consumed. Over time as the adrenal glands are called upon continuously to release these hormones, they burn out. They no longer produce cortisol as they should, which leads to adrenal fatigue and eventually exhaustion. Adrenal fatigue or exhaustion leads to many chronic health conditions and symptoms like excessive fatigue, inability to handle stress, anxiety, depression and many more.

People become dependent on raw cacao or chocolate because now their neurotransmitters and adrenal glands don’t function properly on their own, they now need the raw cacao to perform their duties. They experience fatigue, lack of concentration, depression, anxiety etc, when it isn’t eaten, so they eat it all the time.

Furthermore, anytime the stress response system is activated, as it is from the caffeine in chocolate, epinephrine triggers the liver to release sugar that it has stored into the blood stream, thus increasing blood sugar levels, which then leads to an insulin response and then the inevitable of storage of excess sugar as fat. This means that chocolate can contribute to insulin resistance, hyperinsulinism, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease etc.

Both raw unfermented cocoa beans and your regular cocoa powder contain exceptionally high levels of phytic acid and so does processed chocolate to a slightly lesser extent.  Phytates are antinutrients that bind to your minerals and make them unavailable to your body and decrease activity of important digestive enzymes like amylase, pepsin, and trypsin, which means they may contribute to mineral deficiencies, gut inflammation, leaky gut and autoimmune disorders.

Not only that, many brands of cacao have high levels of heavy metals like cadmium, lead and copper. All of which can have a profound negative effect on neurotransmitter production and function and thus emotional health. High levels of heavy metals are implicated in numerous mental health issues.

Other symptoms or conditions that can develop from the over consumption of raw cacao may include abnormal growth of glands, panic attacks, irritability, headaches, outbursts of unexplainable anger, mood swings, impaired colon functioning, birth abnormalities, irritated kidneys, trembling, damage to the liver, violence, paranoia, PMS, OCD and dizziness.

We could sum this up simply by saying that raw cacao over stimulates the heart, mind, nervous system and body. Over stimulation is never a good thing. It leads to burn out, malfunction and degradation. To say that it is a healthy Superfood is simply ludicrous.

If you’ve visited me before, then you know that I am a strong advocate of the Paleo diet. Unfortunately, many people in the primal community are also under the false belief that eating dark chocolate or raw cacao is healthy. You will find dark chocolate in the ingredients of many Paleo recipes. I urge you to not get caught up in this misinformation. In addition to all that we’ve already discussed, our caveman ancestors were not indulging in anything that resembles chocolate. Keep in mind that most Paleo recipes are written for the general population, not people with chronic mental or physical health conditions. Yes, someone who is generally in good health can get away with indulgences in some unhealthy behaviors like eating chocolate without too many consequences. At this site, we are dealing with things like addiction, mental health disorders, gastrointestinal issues, autoimmune disorders, endocrine system disorders, candida overgrowth, autonomic nervous system disorders and much more. For this group of people, you do not have the same luxury or freedom for indulgences.

With all that being said, I’m not saying that you should never indulge in raw cacao or chocolate. However, consumption should be restricted to special occasions and should be done so with your eyes wide open and aware of the facts, not in a veil of delusion and lies. Not under the false assumption that you are eating something healthy and not in a state of denial and justification to continue a harmful addiction. An occasional piece of organic cacao or chocolate that is sugar-free is not going to do any long term damage, however it should not be part of the diet on a regular basis.

Even I will allow myself to eat something that contains a little chocolate or cacao in it, maybe once or twice  a year, but I do so with awareness and it is a small serving. However, most of the time if I’m in the mood for a creamy chocolate experience, I will indulge in carob instead. Carob is just as satisfying and doesn’t come with any of the negative effects of raw cacao or chocolate, other than the fact that it is a legume.

In my personal experience, it does not matter if it is organic processed chocolate, dark chocolate or raw cacao, they all give me the same negative effects. I can’t eat a big hunk of raw cacao or a chocolate bar because both of them give me a headache, anxiety attacks, hyperactivity, trembling and nervousness, racing heartbeat, irritability and I’ll be up all night. However, I can eat something like a Nana’s cookie or an ice cream substitute made of coconut or nuts that has a small amount of raw cacao or chocolate without a problem. The proportion of cacao to the other ingredients has to be very small. On the other hand, knowing what I know about raw cacao and chocolate makes it something that I can’t do in good conscience on a very frequent basis.

Some other very important and rather repulsive facts about chocolate you also want to be aware of are revealed to us in “Poison with a Capital C.” “Every time you eat a chocolate bar, it may contain a rodent hair and 16 insect parts and still carry the blessing of the FDA.” And, “For chocolate powder or cakes there must not be more than 75 insect fragments in three tablespoons of powder.” And, “Four percent of cacao beans may be infested by insects. Animal excreta (such as visible rat droppings) must not exceed 10 milligrams per pound.”

So that may be something you want to think about every time you have a craving for a chocolate bar. On the other hand, I’m sure that this is true of many mass produced foods like nuts, seeds and grains and we aren’t aware of it. The mass processing of food would make it inevitable that insects, rodents and their fecal material would make it into our food supply. Disgusting to think about, but probably a reality.

Here’s a few other web pages you may want to visit for more information on raw cacao toxicity:

http://www.living-foods.com/articles/toxiccacao.html

http://www.thinkandgoraw.com/IsRawChocolateHealthy.htm

http://www.pearmagazine.com/online/2007/feb-mar/chocolate1.html

Proponents of raw cacao like to leave me comments and adamantly proclaim they have no problems eating it and provide me with a list of “so called” benefits, but that is beside the point. As we have already discussed earlier, we must look at the entire nutritional picture to determine whether something is truly healthy. The existence of some benefits in a food does not override the existence of clear and present dangers. This page does not exist to discuss the benefits, it exists to educate people about the risks and dangers and to validate the experiences of those who are having these negative effects.

Of course, there will be some people who see no negative impacts from the consumption of any form of chocolate. Some people can smoke cigarettes like a freight train and drink alcohol like a fish for their entire lifetime and see no negative results either, but that doesn’t mean it’s something we should all do. If you happen to be blessed with a magnificent set of genes and an autonomic nervous system made of steel, then you might be one of the lucky ones, but not many of us are. By making simple changes in our diet, we can alter the way our genes will express themselves and thus make improvements in our health.

Some people are more sensitive to the chemicals found in chocolate and raw cacao than others. It is typically people who have a very sensitive autonomic nervous system and/or some issues with neurotransmitters or impairment in their detoxification system and they are the people who need to restrict consumption.

Anyone who lives with the challenges of any of the following conditions should severely restrict their consumption of chocolate or raw cacao or avoid it all together, because they are some of the most vulnerable to these negative effects: sugar or carb addiction, alcoholism, drug addiction, caffeine addiction, nicotine addiction, PMS, irritable bowel, leaky gut, food sensitivities, Candida overgrowth, neurotransmitter imbalances or deficiencies, adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, chemical sensitivities, hyperactivity, attention deficit, diabetes, type 2 diabetes, depression, compulsive overeaters, anxiety disorders, mood swings, heart disease, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, migraine headaches, hormone imbalances, tourette’s, autism, anger management issues, outbursts of rage, violence or any other mental health issue or autonomic nervous system disorder.

However, sometimes it can take a while for symptoms to develop. The human body can take a lot of abuse before things go awry. So, if you happen to be someone who eats chocolate with no problem today, it doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Things change as we get older, as we face different stressors and environments and go through other life events. Most people would do well to restrict their consumption regardless of their health status, as the autonomic nervous system can become sensitized and neurotransmitters disrupted over time.

Just because raw cacao or dark chocolate contains antioxidants and minerals like magnesium doesn’t mean it should be eaten. The extreme bitter taste of this substance is natures way of providing us with an indicator of the toxins it contains and is supposed to serve as deterrent. Antioxidants and magnesium can be found in a variety of other healthier foods that don’t contain the dangerous and harmful chemicals that cacao contains. We can get those benefits elsewhere without the risks and negative health effects.

References
Drewnowski, A., Krahn, D. D., Demitrack, M. A., Nairn, K. & Gosnell, B. A. (1995) Naloxone, an opiate blocker, reduces the consumption of sweet high-fat foods in obese and lean female binge eaters. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 61:1206-1212.

Drewnowski, A., Krahn, D. D., Demitrack, M. A., Nairn, K. & Gosnell, B. A. (1992) Taste responses and preferences for sweet high-fat foods: evidence for opioid involvement. Physiol. Behav. 51:371-379.

Bruinsma K, Taren DL. Chocolate Food or Drug? J Am Diet Assoc. 1999 Oct;99(10):1249-56.

Ashley N. Gearhardt, MS, MPhil; Sonja Yokum, PhD, et al. Neural Correlates of Food Addiction Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;Volume 68 No.(8):808-816.

Jennifer A. Nassera, et al. The Neural Basis of Feeding and Reward: A Tribute to Bart Hoebel. Physiology & Behavior, Volume 104, Issue 1, 25 July 2011, Pages 117–121.

DiFeliceantonio AG, Mabrouk OS, Kennedy RT, Berridge KC. Enkephalin Surges in Dorsal Neostriatum as a Signal to Eat. Current Biology. Published online September 20 2012

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse). Chocolate, A Dangerous Drug.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfeyFY58Hs0

Ecuadorian Cacao Powder Heavy Metals Lab Test

Barnard, Neal, M.D. Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings. St. Martin’s Griffin (September 23, 2004)

di Tomaso E, Beltramo M, Piomelli D. Brain cannabinoids in chocolate. Nature. 1996 Aug 22;382(6593):677-8.

{ 53 comments… add one }

  • Susan January 12, 2015, 3:23 pm

    Thank you, so very helpful and motivating.
    Blessings,
    Susan

  • Jane April 26, 2015, 12:35 am

    Hello Cynthia – quite an eye-opening article – yikes!
    Was wondering if you have any data on the chemicals in cacao butter? I was wondering if it was less harmful than the cacao powder? I am partial to a raw caramel chocolate that uses cacao butter, cashews and coconut sugar.
    Thanks,
    Jane

  • Admin - Cynthia Perkins May 20, 2015, 9:27 pm

    Hi Jane,

    Cacao is cacao. For the most part, it doesn’t matter what form it takes, the effects mentioned above are going to occur. However, the raw form is more potent.

    Best
    Cynthia

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