Chocolate IS a Modern Paleo-approved food… but there are many caveats, and the Paleo purists (those who are anthropologically accurate) may disagree with its inclusion.
Chocolate is also a complex thing – and, as with Dairy, when we refer to Chocolate we are not just referring to one single foodstuff. Within the Chocolate realm there is much variety – from the percentage of cocoa solids and quality of cocoa used to the added ingredients and emulsifiers. Therefore, we will first establish the notion of how Chocolate is Paleo in light of Hunter-Gatherer diets – and then discuss what type of Chocolate would be classed as approved, the reasons why you might consume it only in small amounts, and whether you really want to be consuming it at all if you have autoimmunity. Within this last point for those with immune concerns we will cover gluten cross-reactivity, the lectins and phytates in Chocolate and the latest craze in Chocolate creations – RAW Chocolate (which might not even exist…)
The Hunter-Gatherer Diet Debate
This is a relatively quick comment – ancestral humans were highly unlikely to be eating Chocolate in the way we consume it today. Chocolate is from cocoa beans (which are actually seeds, though we will refer to them as ‘beans’ throughout the rest of this article) and the process of accessing the goodness from cocoa beans is an ancient one – with the liquids that resulted from the steeping of roasted beans being part of cultures for centuries. And yet to do any of this – in fact, to make cocoa beans edible – heat HAS to be applied, or at the very least some form of processing such as fermentation and/or soaking etc. to effectively render the cocoa bean digestible, edible and non-toxic. As with all seeds and beans, therefore, they are tough to digest (even toxic) without going through some form of processing first.
This means that whilst ancient hunter-gatherers may not have been consuming cocoa – as soon as we knew how to make these beans digestible, we were consuming them.
The Nutrient Profile of Cocoa … and Chocolate
The sought-after cocoa was, from the very beginning, renowned for its biochemical effects. These are akin to coffee in that there is a small amount of caffeine (a stimulant) and theobromine (a smooth muscle relaxant) in cocoa. That said, the amount of these compounds in a small serving of Chocolate itself is relatively low. But Chocolate is made from the cocoa bean which, as with coffee and many other deep-coloured plants, is rich in polyphenols: beneficial plant compounds known to boost health outcomes in a variety of ways.
What Chocolate does, however, is combine these compounds with something else that our brains and bodies love – sugar. The heady cocktail of polyphenols, some vitamins and minerals, stimulants and relaxants that alter activity in the central nervous system, with added sugar to provide a hit of dopamine, makes Chocolate powerful and appealing.
Consumed in a fashion which pairs high cocoa solid percentages (80-85%+) with low sugar levels, preferably from natural sources, and WITHOUT emulsifiers such as soy or sunflower lecithin, Chocolate, in small quantities, can be a nourishing and delicious pleasure in the midst of a Paleo diet. OK, so ancient hunter-gatherers weren’t eating it – but they most likely would have if they could.
The real benefits of Chocolate can be seen in research – but you won’t see any research at the bottom of this article. Why? Because a good amount of Chocolate research was funded by the leaders in the Chocolate industry. As such, studies have linked Chocolate to heart health, anti-inflammatory properties, skin protection, prebiotic gut microbiome boosting and improved brain function but, in reality, there are also downsides to Chocolate, just as there are downsides to attaining therapeutic doses of resveratrol from red wine (i.e. you’d need to drink litres to gain any benefit).
What we can say is that mechanistically it is true that the polyphenol content of Chocolate is highly likely to hold a host of benefits, just as the polyphenols in rich-coloured fruits and vegetables do. The question, as always, with a nutrient-dense diet is one of how much you need to consume to gain the benefit, and at the quantity needed to see positive impacts how balanced are the ‘nutrients vs. anti-nutrients’.
Beyond the polyphenols, Chocolate is a seed, and hence contains the anti-nutrients of other seeds that you will see elsewhere on this site: Lectins and Phytates. The reality is that the lectins found in nuts and seeds are currently not demonstrated to cross the gut barrier, without the presence of an already permeable intestinal wall. This means that the lectins from nuts and seeds (including Chocolate and Coffee) are not believed to be ‘toxic lectins’. However, if the gut is already permeable then the lectins from the cocoa seed CAN cross the gut barrier and do harm.
Realistically, the lectins in Chocolate are far more easily broken down both by digestion and the cooking process than the toxic lectins in grains like wheat. Additionally, Chocolate is typically a fermented product (to ripen the beans) and fermentation further breaks down the lectins prior to consumption. This means that in a healthy person any lectin content remaining in a roasted cocoa bean is highly, highly unlikely to create damage.
As for the phytate content of Chocolate – phytates too are broken down by fermenting and then roasting the cocoa beans. Whilst, gram for gram, the resulting phytate content in cocoa beans and cocoa powder or chocolate might rank as quite high – we have to analyse these products based on the quantities in which they are consumed. We don’t eat vast quantities of Chocolate at any one time (or we would recommend not to) and hence the overall anti-nutrient burden from phytate turns out to be remarkably low.
Chocolate has been shown to liberate histamine from cells, which – in some sensitive individuals – can create typical histamine reactions of flushing and rashes etc. Again, this effect will only occur in individuals with pre-existing histamine conditions or intolerance (or high baseline levels of histamine due to some form of stress), rather than it being a problem with Chocolate itself. Again, it would seem that if your health is fairly balanced then adding Chocolate into the diet is going to be perfectly well tolerated.
How Much Can You Eat?
Everything in the body is about quantity and current health of each individual. We have mentioned throughout this article that Chocolate should probably be consumed in smaller quantities. Ironically, many would assume that this is because Chocolate contains sugar. However, we’ve already stipulated that the Chocolate we would recommend is the 85-90% cocoa solids kind, which contains relatively little sugar. And no, we’re not recommending lower quantities because of anti-nutrients because, as explained above, most anti-nutrients are taken care of by the fermentation and roasting processes.
Instead, we would recommend consuming Chocolate in moderation because of its fat content… and we know, everywhere else on this site you will read about a relatively ‘high fat’ or ‘pro fat’ approach. And yet, we are always very careful to specify which fats we recommend… and Chocolate contains a rather unique form of fat which may not be healthy in large quantities…
The other ingredient in chocolate, alongside the cocoa mass (which we will discuss more about below) is cocoa butter. This is the fat from the bean of the cocoa plant. It is, like any fat, saturated to a certain extent.
The fat from Chocolate happens to be incredibly high (unusually so) in a saturated fat called Palmitic Acid. This fatty acid has been proven in the scientific literature to harm hypothalamic sensitivity to leptin and insulin.
In layman’s terms, the hypothalamus (in the brain) picks up on the hormonal signals of leptin and insulin to sense fullness and satiation (and therefore hunger, desire for food etc). Any lack of sensitivity to these two hormones equals a brain that is less able to understand when you are full. The net effect of this is that whilst initially the fat content in Chocolate will cause a digestive slow-down and a sense of fullness, eventually Chocolate can desensitise the brain to the hormones and fullness and result in sensations of hunger.
We all know that moderation is hard to practice when it comes to Chocolate – and this can be linked to poorer quality Chocolate (of which more below) which creates an inflammatory response and a cytokine and adrenaline cascade which makes it impossible to stop eating. This can also be linked to high-sugar Chocolate consumption (i.e. milk and white) where you jump onto the rollercoaster of sugar acquisition and cease to be able to control your evolutionary-determined sweet craving/caffeine dependency/theobromine hit.
But even the good stuff, the pure stuff, the lower sugar versions – and sometimes especially these varieties – can create a metabolic disruption which affects your ability to sense your own satiety. This means you may stop the Chocolate to start with… but a little while later you’re back at the cupboard searching for more.
Throughout the above we have distinguished between ‘good quality’ and ‘bad quality’ Chocolate. In the context of Paleo (which is dairy free) we are obviously not going to be recommending eating milk chocolate or white chocolate, both of which contain dairy and a really low percentage of cocoa solids which reduces the quantity of ‘beneficial compounds’ substantially. But even amongst the varieties of pure, dark Chocolate there are huge differences in quality.
Firstly – Chocolate is made by processing a cocoa bean through a variety of fermenting, heating/roasting and drying processes. Here we run into a common concern with beans/seeds which must be processed in this way to make them digestible (which includes coffee): mould, rancidity and low standards of freshness. The time taken to roast, the nature of the roasting process itself, the quality of the soil in which the plants are grown and the way in which the beans are stored all factor into the healthfulness of the overall end product. Improper processing and storage methods can result in beans that are, basically, ‘off’. The resulting Chocolate may contain mycotoxins and moulds, which are obviously not ideal for human consumption.
Side note: we are going to focus on nutrition within this article, but another concern with the production of Chocolate beyond its quality is the question of whether the Chocolate is ‘Fair Trade’, i.e. are the plantation owners, farmers and pickers paid anywhere near a fair price for their produce?
It is important that you spend the money necessary to get a good quality chocolate – one that is filled with the ingredients listed as “Organic Cocoa Mass” or “Cocoa Solids”, potentially “Cocoa Nibs” along with Sugar. And really, that’s all that’s necessary to make Chocolate. The manufacturers can add vanilla if they would like to – but it shouldn’t be necessary.
And what certainly doesn’t need to be in good quality chocolate are emulsifiers, thickeners, stabilisers and non-food ingredients.
Lecithin the Sludge-like Emulsifier
Lecithin doesn’t really need to be in Chocolate but you will see it in almost all commercially available Chocolate, either the soy version or the sunflower version. Both are made from the sludge-like leftovers of processing the original plant (soy beans or sunflower seeds). The use of sunflower lecithin is common in higher quality, niche (and “Paleo”-branded) chocolate. Most commercial products use the soya equivalent. But neither are optimal for health. Lecithin was once a waste product of vegetable oil production, industries found that by chemically processing it they could use it – and the lecithin that is the result contains polysaccharides and a host of lipids.
The actual effect of lecithin is perhaps much less harmful than some other gums and thickeners – and yet the effect of the polysaccharides and phospholipids etc. has been linked to something called TMAO which is linked to heart disease, most likely due to its overall inflammatory impact. But again, the quantities of lecithin in Chocolate are typically small enough not to cause concern… and yet, it is one of those ingredients that is completely unnecessary to include… so why would you?
Willie’s Cacao in the UK is a GREAT example of how unnecessary thickeners and stabilisers are to the finished Chocolate product. Quality cocoa, excellent taste, no ‘extras’ and well-sourced – you couldn’t ask for more.
Chocolate and Autoimmunity, Cross-Reactivity and Inflammation
Perhaps the most common assertion with Chocolate in the autoimmune community is that Chocolate is a ‘common gluten cross-reactive’. However, this statement is false.
A trawl of the scientific literature reveals absolutely no studies which link Chocolate with gluten as a cross-reactive. In fact, the whole notion of cross-reactivity is, in some circles, dismissed as ‘not of concern’ (we will return to this topic in future on our blog). It is also perceived to be only an issue for someone with strict coeliac disease, and not to be an issue for those with gluten sensitivity issues.
The cross-reactivity myth is so pervasive because one of the biggest allergy labs in the world, Cyrex, runs panels for “Gluten Cross-Reactives”. It is common in autoimmune circles to think that cross-reactivity with gluten is a major factor, however it is highly likely that foods which people believe they are reacting to for ‘cross-reactive’ reasons are actually being poorly tolerated for other issues to do with anti-nutrient properties and the indigestibility of that specific product, rather than any links to gluten.
As for the Cyrex Gluten Cross-Reactivity panel – this includes Chocolate. However, upon asking for clarification, Cyrex confirmed that the Chocolate tested against is MILK Chocolate and hence any reactivity determined is highly, highly likely to be to dairy proteins as opposed to any inherent Chocolate property.
That doesn’t mean Chocolate gets a free pass in the Autoimmune Paleo Diet, however – it is, after all, a seed and as such should be eliminated.
But the rationale for elimination of nuts and seeds on the AIP diet is entirely based upon the digestibility of the toxic compounds in them for someone with an already impaired health picture, a permeable digestive tract and an over-sensitised immune system. We repeat – there is no causal link between nuts/seeds and autoimmunity, only the very real issue that when immune and digestive health are already impaired, nuts and seeds become difficult to digest and tolerate and can cause systemic inflammation.
When it comes to Chocolate, the seed has already been heavily processed and much of the toxicity removed which means that this contraindication is less impactful than for other nuts and seeds which would be consumed raw.
A NOTE ON THE ‘RAW’ CHOCOLATE CRAZE: for some reason, ‘raw’ food has come to be associated with a faint glow of health. And yet, with grains and seeds like cocoa – raw is positively dangerous. As you will have read above, it is the processing – the fermenting and roasting – that renders cocoa not only digestible, but safe. This is not something that you want to tempt fate with – and cacao, even in ancient cultures, was processed this way.
It is barely possible to make what you buy on the shelf as ‘Raw Chocolate’. But, in a technical loophole, food can be classified as raw if the heat is kept below 118 degrees Fahrenheit. With Chocolate treating beans in this way takes takes far, FAR longer than normal processing methods and special machines are required. And yet, even if this effort is undertaken we come right back to the issue of the two main problems of cocoa: improper processing leads to a higher prevalence of moulds and toxins AND improper processing does NOT eliminate the phytate and enzyme inhibitors present in the beans. This low temperature roasting is not powerful enough to eliminate either moulds OR the anti-nutrients of Chocolate. Raw chocolate is best avoided for everyone.
To be completely clear, regardless of autoimmunity and cross-reactivity, even properly processed Chocolate (as with any food) can be reactive in anyone – so do not just assume that because it isn’t a cross-reactive and just because you’re buying good quality, correctly processed Chocolate you will be fine.
Chocolate is a highly simulating and chemically complicated food, so our recommendation at Paleo in the UK is that if you are embarking on an AIP journey you eliminate the Chocolate and cocoa from your life for at least 30 days. The main reason is simply to gain clarity of how your body feels without the stimulant and chemical impact of these seeds which can create metabolic disruption. However, Chocolate can be brought back in as an early reintroduction, providing you are in a place where you will be able to clearly discern whether it is ‘too much’ for your system when you bring it back in. (For more on this, see our “AIP Reintroductions” Page).
However, if you are just following a Paleo diet then Chocolate can be incorporated from the start. Yes, it is good for you and contains some really great chemical compounds which are actually healthful.
BUT it does have all the addictive and behaviour altering properties of Sugar, Coffee and Alcohol, as I’m sure we all sense. Yet when it comes to a healthy life (as opposed to just a healthy diet) we are strongly of the opinion that all of these substances might play a part – so if you are consuming Chocolate we would recommend that you make two investments.
The first is the investment of money to buy the good quality stuff…
The second is the investment of making sure you ENJOY eating it. No food should ever feel like a ‘guilty’ pleasure, so if you’re going to eat Chocolate, make sure you take the time to consume it with real pleasure…