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Chocolate
Food of the Gods & High-Fat Superfood #1

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Quick Summary tl;dr

Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing raw cacao beans. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that's been roasted at high temperatures which destroys many of the healthy antioxidants and other compounds found in chocolate.

Cacao is the most natural form of chocolate and confers the greatest health benefits.

Dark chocolate is low-carb and packed with healthy fats, minerals like magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper and iron, antioxidant flavanols, and many more healthy micronutrients.

The unique cocktail of compounds in chocolate may reduce heart disease risk, improve gut health, treat inflammatory disorders, enhance mood, and protect the brain against cognitive decline.

It may not surprise you to learn that the cacao beans used to make chocolate come from the Theobroma cacao tree, which translates to “food of the gods.” But chocolate isn’t just legendary for its taste. It’s also a low-carb, keto-friendly, nutrient-dense superfood… provided you get the right type.

How To Choose Quality Chocolate

So, what sets real healthy chocolate apart from the imposter Hershey’s bars or Cadbury Eggs that give this remarkable food a bad rap?

To answer that question, we need to learn a little bit about how the divine cacao bean gets processed. Once cacao beans are harvested, they are fermented (yep, just like kimchi or wine) and then dried in the sun. In the best-case scenario, chocolate ends its journey here. The fermented and dried cacao beans can be eaten as is, turned directly into chocolate, or ground into cacao powder. Any chocolate product for which the sole ingredient is cacao is a winner!

What is the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

Raw cacao is your best and healthiest option. But most chocolate goes on to be roasted, at which point the “cacao” loses its A+ health status and becomes cocoa. Processed cocoa may look similar but it's not the same as raw cacao. The reason roasted chocolate is less nutritious is that heating destroys many of the healthy antioxidants and other compounds found in chocolate, which we will get to in a bit.

Cocoa can be crushed into “nibs,” ground into “baker chocolate,” and melted into “liquor.” Chocolate liquor can be separated into “cocoa butter” (fat) and “cocoa mass” (remaining powder). The butter and mass are recombined with sugar to make chocolate bars of different “percentages.”

Congratulations! You now speak chocolate-ese and know that the leading “A”s in cacao stand for A+ health.

Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing raw cacao beans. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that's been roasted at high temperatures which destroys many of the healthy antioxidants and other compounds found in chocolate.

Chocolate: Food of the Gods & High-Fat Superfood #1

7 Reasons Why Chocolate is a Superfood

Now that we’re all on the same page when it comes to what we mean by “chocolate,” let’s discuss why chocolate is a superfood!

1. Chocolate is low in net carbs, high in protein and fibre

Let’s start with macronutrients. 100% dark chocolate actually contains more protein and fiber than net carbs!

2. Chocolate has a healthy fat profile

Continuing with macronutrients, chocolate also has an interesting fat profile, being about equal parts stearic acid, palmitic acid, and oleic acid. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty scientific details here, but suffice it to say that these balance of fats should be healthy. (If you want to learn more about different fatty acids, you can read my post about the "fatome".)

Dark chocolate is low in net carbs, high in protein and fibre and healthy fats (equal parts of stearic acid, palmitic acid, and oleic acid). Oleic acid enhances fat burning and helps induce satiety.

3. Chocolate is a good source of minerals

Chocolate is also packed with minerals including magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, and iron. In fact, cacao is the best-known plant-based source of iron and also contains three-times the iron density of red meat. (Admittedly, animal-sourced heme iron is more bioavailable. Wait, did someone say “chocolate jerky?”)

4. Chocolate is high in antioxidants

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Chocolate is fat with “flavanol” antioxidants and other beneficent micronutrients that have amazing health benefits.

5. Chocolate is heart-healthy

As some non comprehensive (I’m not writing an encyclopedia here) case in points, let’s talk about how chocolate can help the heart, the gut, and the brain!

Starting with the heart, flavanol-rich dark chocolate can decrease blood pressure and increase blood flow to the heart (mechanism: increasing the producing of a gas hormone called nitric oxide) ( 1).

Chocolate can also decrease blot clotting, which especially important when one considers that atherosclerotic plaques are internal blood clots (mechanism: decreasing thromboxane A2 to inhibit platelet aggregation) ( 1).

And as the kicker, chocolate increases HDL good cholesterol, decreases LDL cholesterol and LDL oxidation, and decreases triglycerides ( 1). Basically, the American Heart Association should replace statins with chocolate (that’s not official medical advice).

Flavanol-rich dark chocolate can decrease blood pressure and blot clotting. Dark chocolate increases HDL good cholesterol, decreases LDL cholesterol and LDL oxidation, and decreases triglycerides.

6. Chocolate is good for your gut

Turning to the gut, chocolate is a fermented food and, like kimchi, is probiotic. The overflow of flavanols not absorbed in the small intestine end up feeding healthy gut bacteria in the colon and decreasing inflammation ( 1). For example, in a randomized, double-blind, crossover human study (a.k.a. a really good type of study), drinking a cacao drink for 4-weeks increased the number of healthy anti-inflammatory Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species and decreased the number of inflammatory Clostridium species. This change in bacteria correlated with a 30% decrease in inflammation ( 2).

Dark chocolate is a fermented food and, like kimchi, is probiotic. The overflow of flavanols not absorbed in the small intestine end up feeding healthy gut bacteria in the colon and decreasing inflammation.

7. Chocolate is good for brain health

Of course, a happy tummy heralds a happy mind. But, in the case of chocolate, the relationship isn’t simply psychological. Chocolate takes mental health a step further because it is rich in the love molecule “phenethylamine,” ( 3) the bliss chemical “anandamide,” and the happiness hormone “serotonin.”

As these good mood hormones are only present in real chocolate, it’s not entirely surprising that a population study of 13,626 adults found that, even after adjusting for factors like age, sex, BMI, and daily sugar intake, dark chocolate consumption specifically, but not milk or white chocolate consumption, was associated with a 70% reduced risk of depression ( 4).

Be kind to your mind and eat some chocolate that’s unrefined!

While happiness always wins, cognitive longevity is important too. Luckily, chocolate has a role to play in fighting Alzheimer’s disease. For one, cacao flavanols increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is like miracle-grow for brain cells ( 1). Cacao extracts and BDNF have even been shown to protect human neurons from amyloid toxicity, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease ( 5). What’s more, in a rat model of Alzheimer’s disease, rats fed dark chocolate for three months exhibited improved cognitive performance ( 6).

Chocolate takes mental health a step further because it is rich in the love molecule “phenethylamine,” the bliss chemical “anandamide,” and the happiness hormone “serotonin.”

What We've Been Working On...

Normally, chocolate would be a dessert. But Martina and I are flipping the script and using it as an appetizer! In collaboration with a third co-author, Thomas DeLauer, we are writing a science-based Mediterranean-ketogenic diet cookbook that will focus on seven high-fat superfoods, of which chocolate is just one. You can check out Thomas’s chocolate video here and comment if you’re excited about the prospects of a sciency keto cookbook full of nutrient and fat profiles, Omega-6/3 ratios, and fun facts!

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Dr. Nicholas Norwitz
PhD in Ketogenics and Metabolism, Oxford University

Nicholas Notwitz

Dr. Nicholas Norwitz is a new shining star in nutrition science. This 25-year-old Ivy League Valedictorian obtained his PhD at Oxford University in just two years and is now pursing his MD at Harvard Medical School. His research expertise is ketosis and brain aging; however, he has published scientific papers on topics ranging from neuroscience to heart disease to gastrointestinal health to genetics to bone health to diabetes.

You can find Nick on Twitter at @nicknorwitz.

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Comments (20)

Can dark chocolate cause constipation? The other day I had 60g of dark chocolate consisting of only cocoa, stevia and my bowel movement didn't happen next day; Everything else I ate remained almost the same the previous day when I had a normal bowel movement. So I was wondering if there are elements in cocoa that can slower the bowel motility

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Dark chocolate has fiber and phytates and caffeine, so can cause constipation. Stevia is also metabolized by some gut bugs and can cause symptoms in individuals with IBS (a minority, but it happens). With respect to the fiber in chocolate, it’s mostly insoluble, which is less likely to cause constipation than soluble fiber, which slows gastric motility. But, in truth, everyone has different sensitivities, and it’s often difficult to impossible to determine the exact cause of an individual’s sensitivity. Whole foods are complicated. For example, if you have a DAO mutation and are histamine sensitivity, chocolate could be a particular irritant. This is probably unlikely in your case, but what I’m trying to build to is this: I’m sorry I don’t have a great answer for you. I recommend you repeat as an experiment and then, through observation, determine what works for you and what doesn’t. Simply, though, chocolate is not known to be particularly constipating.

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Can you specify within what temperature is it fine to make cocoa powder from cacoa beans by roasting them? Is roasting temperature of 120ºC fine?
The manufacturer from where I get my cocoa powder from says this: [b]There is a "quantifiable" risk of infection from unroasted cocoa beans. Roasting reduces this risk.
Various chemical reactions occur when cocoa beans are roasted and proper roasting is integral to good flavored chocolate.[/b] What do you have to say about that?

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Extrapolating from my knowledge about what is safe for nuts and seeds (<130C for 20 minutes), 120C is probably fine not certainly not ideal. I also assume the roasting time is quite long. I also am not aware of literature suggesting unroasted cacao is not safe. If they cite literature showing this I’d be interested to see it. Manufacturers often try to back-explain their processes and/or be conservative because they aren’t experts themselves and they would rather be safe than sued. As for flavor, roasting could enhance flavor. The same is true of dutch processing. You compromise a bit of health, but not all of it. There is what is nutritionally ideal and then what compromises one is willing to make in their life. Simple question: what brings you the highest quality of life? Usually then answer isn’t as simple as only eating foods are nutritionally ideal. You can also use some raw and some roasted if you want health and extra flavor, on occasion.

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Nick, who do you think should worry about the histamine in organic dark chocolate? I am planning to consume an ounce of 85% stevia sweetened high quality organic dark chocolate everyday to get the anti-oxidents but worried about histamine in it. Apart from gas/bloating issues, do you suggest to check anything else to know whether consuming dark chocolate isn't working well or not?

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For the benefit of those who read your excellent question, histamine sensitivity refers to sensitivity to foods that contain the immunomodulator “histamine.” This is a chemical released from mast cells of the immune system and it can contribute to the symptoms of allergies. That’s why allergy medications are sometimes referred to as “anti-histamines,” like Claritin or Zyrtec. Now, histamine is made from the decarboxylation of histidine, the amino acid. Certain bacteria can decarboxylate histidine into histamine which means certain fermented foods are rich is histamine. These include blue and aged cheeses, kimchi, sauerkraut, wine, and chocolate! Getting to your question, true histamine sensitivity is usually due to a mutation in the AOC1 gene on chromosome 7 that codes for the enzyme diamine oxidase (DAO). Only a small % of people have this mutation (including me, as it turns out). Such mutants need to watch out for histamine rich foods. Also, some women can be sensitive to histamine during and after mendes because DAO levels drop during the follicular phase of the cycle. It’s worth noting that sensitivity can be improved or eliminated with a DAO supplement (.3 mg at meals) or even eating kidney meat which is naturally rich in DAO (I use the latter trick and it works for me). As for you and your 85% chocolate, if you’re not having more than a couple ounces per day and you’re not a DAO mutant it should probably be okay. Of course, if you do experience GI problems with chocolate, titrate down. It would be hard to know if any sensitivity you have is due to the histamine or phytates or oxalates, etc. there are a lot of possibilities.

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This is awesome! Have any particular brand recommendations?

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Both below are my favs fro US/UK 100% cacao bars
If US, I like EVOLVED midnight dark 100%: https://eatingevolved.com/products/midnight-coconut-100-cacao
If UK, I like OMBAR 100%: https://www.ombar.co.uk/products/ombar-100-cacao-case-of-10
If it's too bitter, one option is to dip in erythritol.
It's not pure cacao but Lilly's 85% is also quite good if you need something less bitter: https://lilys.com/products/extremely-dark

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buenos días y gracias por tan valiosa información y aclaración sobre el cacao. Solo una cosa a tener en cuenta, por favor, antes de editar el libro, tener en cuenta a la comunidad hispanoparlante, me encantaría contar con el libro en español. Gracias y un saludo al equipo.

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Thank you Cecilia! As for the Spanish version of the book, it will likely be translated. This will be fully handled by our publisher and based on previous experience with other books, a Spanish version will most likely follow.

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Whoo Hoo, I’ve got the real deal in the cupboard (wanted to post a picture) Organic Criolla Cacao Powder and Nibs, from Peru! Hmmm...what to make....hmmm...off to the kitchen now!

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I don't have a sweet tooth...
This is still always in my freezer: Super Creamy Keto Chocolate Ice-Cream
Family fav...

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Fantastic article about chocolate. But what if I haver severe allergy from chocolate?

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Well if you ever get the death sentence, maybe you can choose death my chocolate rather than the chair?
More seriously, it depends on your dietary preferences. Maybe try ceylon cinnamon and pink salt over toasted pecans? Would ake a good nut butter (don't roast pecans over 140C for 20 min).
Artisana's organics coconut butter is fantastic too! Mixed with egg yolks and soaked macademia and you get a great cream.
It's next to impossible to mimick the nutrition and taste of chocolate though... kinda a unique food.

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Would you not recommend chocolate consumption for dinner because it could affect sleep because of caffein?

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I wouldn't worry about it. The caffeine is low enough for most people that it's not an issue. I'm sensitive to caffeine and I don't have that problem, at least up to a ~3 oz (85 g) bar. But give me one cup of coffee at 2:00 pm and I'll be wired all night. Also consider that there are other compounds in chocolate that can have a relaxant effect, like serotonin.

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Mediterranean keto is definitely the way forward. I look forward to your collaborative cookbook with Martina and Thomas. My way of eating at the moment is striving to stay in ketosis for weight loss. But your book will help me to eat better with purpose. To nourish myself with goodness whilst remaining keto.

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Good for you Amina! Keep up posted on your progress and ask us any questions you find helpful. I've recently started a Twitter account  (@nicknorwitz) that you mind find interesting as I drop at least one fun fact per day about keto superfoods & nutrition.
Today's was: Fact of day 90:
Liver best source vit A
A deficiency associated w cog decline
A required for ABCA1 expression, helps w “ApoE lipidation” (Makes ApoE4 more ApoE3-like).
Speculate: Liver→Vit A→ABCA1→ApoE lipidation→happy brain
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00401-017-1669-y
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4302328/
Best! - Nick

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I started on the ketogenic diet a few years ago to help deal with my chronic migraines. I thought that I couldn't have chocolate because of the caffeine. Dark chocolate was even worse. Eventually I discovered that a good sourced raw cacao doesn't. The roasting process releases some sort of chemical that can cause my migraines.
What confuses me is that I've had both raw cacao butter, and fermented cacao paste/liquor, but your article says that by that point, they would already be considered cocoa. What is correct?

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In this article, for the sake of brevity and clarity, we presented the typical processing pipeline. There is no reason certain steps, particularly roasting, could not be skipped. In other words, you could make cacao nibs, paste liquor without roasting (cacao>cocoa). It's not typical, but can be done. I'm not sure whether the brand you're using genuinely skips the roasting step or is mislabeled. Fingers crossed the former. If you list the brands, I'm happy to check for you.
As for Keto & Migranes, if you haven't read the below linked paper in Nature Neuroscience, you must! It's by a young, up-and-coming Keto researcher who herself was a chronic migraine sufferer. She's now committed to curing the world of migrants and has started a really impressive Swiss startup called KetoSwiss to do so, also linked below. Check it out. Her name is Elena Gross.
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41582-019-0255-4
https://www.keto.swiss

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