May 13, 2013

Guest Post from Georgia Stirring change - Raw Cacao: Hype or Science?

Ooh I love a bit of controversy don't you? Sure it can erk us one way or another, but particularly in the food and nutrition industries, a little bit of it is good as everything we read is contradictory, and being told as absolutes - which I believe nothing is absolute. Whether, let's use this instance for example, cacao is good or bad for us can only be answered with one individual in question. The same goes with apples, and coffee, and so on.

But I digress... here is an article written by my gorgeous friend Georgia from Stirring Change - and here she is doing exactly that - stirring the pot on the "superfood" we all love; Cacao.

Raise your hand if you fell for this one too.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. It was an irresistible idea, presented by some very charismatic people. Arguably one of the biggest scams to emerge out of the so-called ‘health’ movement.

Cacao is not a superfood

Don’t get me wrong. I consider fine, dark chocolate to be a fantastic indulgence food, with a few health benefits to boot. It’s in that same seductive category as coffee and red wine. Delicious, double-edged swords, to be enjoyed in moderation. (Beware the dose response curve.)

However cacao, of any kind, shouldn’t be considered a superfood. At least, not by my definition.Optimal, healthy foods are those that are truly nutrient dense, easy to digest (ie ideal for humans) and devoid of toxic antinutrients. Surely we should, at the very least, hold ‘superfoods’ to the same criteria?

A high ORAC score (antioxidant rating) ain’t everything. In fact, the USDA’s Nutrient Data Laboratory recently removed the ORAC Database due to mounting evidence that the system has no relevance to the effects of bioactive compounds on human health.
Their primary concern? ORAC values are “routinely misused by food and supplement manufacturing companies to promote their products and by consumers to guide their food and dietary supplement choices”. Touche, USDA.

So what else shouldn’t be present in a ‘superfood’?


Upon harvest, cacao beans require fermentation to be edible. 64% of the microbes that facilitate this process create toxins called mycotoxins. Aflatoxin and Ochratoxin A are two such mycotoxins that have the following effects:
  • Neurotoxic (destroys nervous tissue)
  • Immunosuppressive (suppresses immune function)
  • Genotoxic (causes genetic mutations)
  • Carcinogenic (cancer causing)
  • Teratogenic (causes birth defects)

These toxins are present in cocoa, coffee and cereal grains and their concentration greatly depends on the correct harvesting, fermentation and storage. Cacao farmers are generally poor and often operate in places lacking proper sanitary regulations. In this study, 98% of South American chocolate sampled was contaminated with ochratoxin A and 80% had a co-occurrence of aflatoxin.
Most of the raw cacao beans that I have personally inspected are visibly mouldy – even those from reputable brands. And while roasting won’t inactivate the mycotoxins, it will at least completely destroy the moulds that produce them.

So let’s look at a couple of the fabricated claims made about raw cacao, compared with its traditional roasted counterpart. I have not been able to find a single reliable study that favours raw cacao. Perhaps traditional cultures like the Maya, who roasted their beans, had it right all along?

Myth 1: Raw cacao contains more antioxidants

FALSE. In fact the exact opposite appears to be true. This study found that there were significantly more free-radical scavenging activity in dark roasted cocoa beans compared with both pre-roasted and raw beans. And this study found that the antioxidant flavanols catechin and epicatechin increased by around 650% with roasting.

Myth 2: Raw cacao is a better source of magnesium

FALSE. Raw cacao certainly contains abundant magnesium. Does this mean it’s a good source for humans? Not really. Paradoxically, many foods containing significant amounts of magnesium, such as cacao, pumpkin seeds and spinach, also have phytates, lectins and other plant toxins that bind minerals and render them fairly unavailable to us.
Traditional cultures prepared foods in a way that minimised plant toxins and maximised nutrient bioavailability, such as adequate fermentation and cooking. Raw chocolate manufacturers pride themselves on having a short fermentation period (1-2 days). However, this study showed that the mineral-binding antinutrients hydrocyanate, oxalate and theobromine actually decrease with increasing duration of fermentation, with the most significant reduction over days 6, 9 and 12.

Myth 3: Raw cacao is full of enzymes / Enzymes are important

Anyone watching the raw cacao industry will know that up until recently, the majority of products on the market were never truly raw. It’s exceptionally difficult to produce good quality chocolate that hasn’t been heated. Good summary, here.
Regardless, it bears mentioning that there’s a distinct lack of studies confirming that (or even suggesting why) cacao enzymes are in any way beneficial to human health. In absence of this, might it not be best to rely on what we do already know? (Hint: traditional wisdom and current science). 

It’s interesting to note that Jeremy Safron – supposedly the true originator of raw cacao within the health movement – has reversed his stance on it after noticing devastating health effects among those consuming it over the long-term. He points out that native cultures predominantly consumed the fruit, which contains the benefits without the detrimental effects.

So if you’re going to indulge, good quality dark chocolate is a healthier option than its newfangled raw cousin. Just try to keep it in perspective: it’s an utterly delicious stimulant, with a few health benefits – not a superfood. And now for some Michael Pollan verdict appropriation:  Eat chocolate. Not too much. Only roasted.

So there you have it. And as a chocolate lover over here, I want to know how you feel about this one. What are your thoughts and feelings? Are you a chocolate lover? Do you prefer raw chocolate or the regular stuff? 
Leave your comments below

Christie xx

Georgia is a Sydney-based nutritionist, whole foods chef, health educator and founder of Stirring Change. you can read more about her here and find out about her upcoming workshop What To Eat; The Refeed Program here.

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