Nutrition 101: For the Love of Chocolate

Feb 23, 2021

I love chocolate and many of the people I work with do too. When supporting my clients in shifting and adapting their nutritional plans to meet their goals and find vibrant health and without fail I am asked “Can I still eat chocolate?” The answer, as always, is “It Depends” With this in mind, I wanted to share some decadent knowledge with you. The scientific name for chocolate is Theobroma cacao. This tree has been cultivated for several thousand years in South and Central America and later introduced to Africa. It has been used as currency for trading, in sacred ceremonies, and made into a drink. It was the Aztecs that introduced it to the Europeans.

Chocolate is made from the seed of the cacao tree. There is a beautiful large fruit that grows on this tree and the seeds are inside, often referred to as cacao beans but they aren’t really legumes. The fruit can measure between 10-30 cm. There are approximately 40 seeds in one fruit which can produce about 50g of 70% dark chocolate. There are different varieties of chocolate trees that create different flavors. These flavors are subtle accents, similar to a fine wine. For example, chocolate from Ecuador tastes different from that of Peru, Costa Rica, or Hawaii. Cacao and Cocoa are not the same! 

  • Cacao is the unheated, mostly unprocessed chocolate, which keeps the beneficial enzymes alive. 
  • Cocoa has been roasted at high temperatures and lacks many of its counterpart’s health benefits. 

Wherever possible, if it’s the health benefits you are after, stick with raw and organic cacao, as opposed to cocoa. There are pros and cons to consuming chocolate, and as always, it is important to be informed and do your research! Health Benefits of Cacao . A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70–85% cocoa contains 11 grams of fiber

  • 67% of the RDI for iron
  • 58% of the RDI for magnesium
  • 89% of the RDI for copper
  • 98% of the RDI for manganese

It also has plenty of potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium Now, 100 grams of chocolate is a little more than what I advise consuming in a day. Cacao contains a caffeine-like chemical called theobromine. This mild stimulant is what can kill your dog so Do Not give your dog chocolate! Theobromine is a bitter tasting plant alkaloid and a known vasodilator, which means it widens your blood vessels. It has been shown to decrease blood pressure and even act as an anti-inflammatory.  There are numerous clinical antioxidant health benefits of cacao. 

  • Cacao could improve and support brain function. 
  • There is also evidence that it’s good for your skin, protecting it from UV light. 
  • Cacao also raises your HDL (the “good” cholesterol) and lowers your LDL (the “bad” cholesterol).

Cacao powder has been found to contain more antioxidants like polyphenols and tannins, than any other touted super fruit or fruit powder.  It is known as a “super food” because it contains many other nutrients such as flavonoid compounds (particularly procyanidins and epicatechin). These help with circulation, improve blood sugar metabolism, and support endothelial cell health (the cells that line your cardiovascular system and even lymphatic vessels.)  Antioxidant capacity is measured in “oxygen radical absorbance capacity,” (ORAC). To give you perspective, 100g of raw cacao powder has an ORAC of 95,500 μ mol TE/100g, while an orange has 2,103 μ mol TE/100g. There are further reported, albeit less scientific, effects from cacao. 

The Aztecs and the emperor Montezuma spoke about the libido stimulating properties of chocolate long ago. Scientists have found a few chemicals that may impact this. Phenylethylamine is a stimulant found in cacao, which is related to amphetamine and associated with the feeling of falling in love. Tryptophan is a building block of serotonin, a brain chemical involved in sexual arousal. 

The Darker Side Of Chocolate

Be mindful that cacao isn’t all healthy. Eating too much has been associated with 

  • Heart Palpitations
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Negative Mood Changes
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Troubling Sleeping
  • Vomiting. 

It’s important to listen to your body and see how it responds. Pregnant women should be cautious when consuming large amounts of raw cacao as it may be related to low birth weight, premature labor, and even miscarriage. Theobromine likely passes through the placenta barrier, impacting the developing fetus. Cacao may not be safe during breastfeeding due to caffeine’s impact on a newborn’s system. Caffeine or stimulants similar to caffeine are not good for a developing nervous system.

In laboratory animal studies, decreased fertility, reduced pup weight, fewer live pups per litter, and delayed bone development have been observed in animals ingesting high-to-very high doses of theobromine before and/or during pregnancy. Delayed heart development, decreased weight, and impaired immune responses have also been observed in the offspring of laboratory mice that were fed low doses of theobromine during pregnancy. It is, however, very difficult to consume a lethal dose. 

Further Concerns

Insect and Rodent Contamination. There are standards for how much insect parts, rodent hair and feces is allowed in your chocolate. This fact alone may help you moderate your intake.  The regulations are as follows:

  1. Insect Filth
  2. The chocolate in six, 100 gram subsamples contains an average of 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams.

Or:

  1. Any one subsample contains 90 or more insect fragments, even if the overall average of all the subsamples is less than 60.
  2. Rodent Filth
  3. The chocolate in six, 100 gram subsamples contains an average of more than 1.0 rodent hair per 100 grams, regardless of the size of the hairs or hair fragments.

Or

  1. Any one subsample contains more than 3 rodent hairs even if the overall average is less than 1.0 rodent hair.

There is rodent hair (and likely poop), and insect parts in your chocolate. The optimistic twist would be that in many countries insects are a part of the regular diet. Alternatively, it may help stimulate your immune system.

Is Chocolate Addictive?

The simple answer is “Yes,” chocolate is addictive. You may notice some addictive tendencies with cacao as well. It may lead you to craving coffee, alcohol, sugar, other caffeine and other things.in Western culture these are unfortunately acceptable addictions but that does not imply they are by any means healthy.  I prefer you have a choice. If you are addicted, then you likely don’t have that choice and are running on autopilot with your brain chemistry running the show. You can over-ride this and find a better balance. If you notice that you’re feeling addicted to chocolate or anything, I recommend you seek out some help and support to provide you with some guidance and structure to work through it. Many of the practices I offer there are helpful when you find yourself craving something. I believe most food addictions have a root beyond simply physical, although the physical part is important too. Often there are emotional aspects of food addiction that tend to go unaddressed. I or addictive tendencies as well as with the physical components of dependency. Even though chocolate is a socially acceptable stimulant, it may not be in your highest best interest to over-consume it or even eat it daily. The question then becomes, how much should you really be eating? How Much Is Healthy?

It is ideal to eat 70% and higher dark chocolate to avoid large amounts of added sugar and dairy. On average, consuming 1.0-1.6 oz of dark cacao daily is considered healthy. This is approximately half of a 3.5 oz bar. Raw organic cacao powder or melted cacao paste can be used in desserts, smoothies, or g drinks to support your body any time of the day. I recommend not eating large quantities of chocolate at night, even if you don’t feel like it stimulates to system. You may not notice what your brain chemistry is doing, even if you aren’t visibly stimulated – it does have an impact.

Do not replace nutrient-rich foods, such as well-raised animal proteins, naturally occurring fats and vegetables, with chocolate. That would truly be shooting yourself in the foot. Instead, cut back on many more highly processed treats and baked goods (even those ‘technically’ approved for your eating plan) and make room for some carefully selected chocolate or cacao.

Once you've made room in your daily diet, make time to truly enjoy your chocolate. Take a few moments, sit down, and slowly savor the deep, rich flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture of a high-quality dark-chocolate square. And remind yourself that there's no need to feel guilty about satisfying your chocolate desires in a responsible, healthy way.

Article written by Micahl Ofer, Functional Nutrition Coach, Beautycounter Consultant

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