In the world of nutrition, where seemingly everyone has radical opinions and divisive polemics are as common as dirt, it's impossible to find any thing that's universally accepted as beneficial. Yet, somehow, almost everyone you talk to in the world of nutrition agrees: chocolate is a fantastic, highly-beneficial food. Of course, there will always be the outliers that will dissent, usually on puritanical anti-stimulant grounds (cacao is a mild stimulant, a property that I consider beneficial, as we'll touch upon later).
As you may have guessed, when I talk about chocolate, I'm not talking about milk chocolate (way too much sugar) or anything at all produced by Nestle or Hersheys or Mars (miserable quality cacao, too much sugar). High-quality dark chocolate (70% cacao content and above) is the stuff that so universally draws praise from doctors, researchers and nutrition experts.
Obviously, I fall in the camp of chocolate supporters, but my take is that there's huge nutritional and medicinal value in chocolate that even these chocolate-supporting experts are overlooking. Chocolate is, in my opinion, perhaps world's most powerful well-being-enhancing food. If you're getting the right chocolate, that is...
Cacao Tree to Cocoa Powder to Chocolate Bar
Any chocolate bar starts it's life as cacao beans in a cacao pod on a cacao tree (see image below). What happens to those cacao beans in the process of converting them into a finished chocolate bar will have a huge impact on the nutritional value of the chocolate you're eventually eating.
Cacao pods on the tree, beans still covered in pulp in the pod, and dried cacao beans.
Cacao processing goes like this: Cacao beans (with pulp) are pulled out of the pods and set aside in big piles for 5-7 days. During this time, fermentation occurs and naturally dissolves the pulp around the beans. The flavor profile of the bean also changes radically during this process. (unfermented cacao beans are essentially inedible)
This fermentation process can have a significant effect on the quality of the cacao you end up eating. Large-scale commercial cacao is left to ferment out in the open air, where it is susceptible to contamination from molds, many of which produce mycotoxins that can be harmful to health. Contrast this with small-scale, artisan cacao production where beans are allowed to ferment indoors in clean facilities with much lower risk of contamination.
Once fermentation is complete, the beans are set out (ideally) in the sun for another 7 days-or-so until they are completely dry. The dried beans are then ground and cold-processed to separate the cacao solids (powder) from the fat (cacao butter).
If you are getting a raw cacao product, the processing of the bean stops here. However, when you get a traditional or commercial cacao product, the cacao goes through a few extra steps. The cacao powder is heated and alkalized, a chemical process that makes the cacao easier to emulsify (dissolve in liquid). This heated and alkalized cacao powder is what is referred to as cocoa powder. While this processing makes it easier to create a smooth final product, there are sacrifices made when cacao is heated and alkalized.
Many of the unique compounds in cacao that make it so beneficial are also quite sensitive to heat and alkalization. Commercial chocolate processing destroys huge percentage of these beneficial compounds, resulting in a final product that has only a fraction of the nutritional and medicinal power raw cacao.
The "Traditional" Benefit: Antioxidants
When doctors and nutrition experts advocate eating dark chocolate, 95% of the time it is the high level of antioxidants that account for the recommendation. They're right, a high-quality dark chocolate has exceptionally high levels of antioxidants. By weight, even processed cocoa powder has more antioxidants than any other commonly accessible food on the planet, save freeze-dried acai powder. (note: there are several spices with higher per-weight antioxidant capacity than cocoa, but good luck eating 10 grams of ground cloves or oregano as you would expect to easily do in eating chocolate)
The antioxidants in cacao are quite sensitive to heat and the alkalization process, which results in a large percentage of the antioxidant activity being lost in the process of converting raw cacao to cocoa. Analysis has shown that a raw cacao powder will have on average 86% more antioxidants (and the other beneficial compounds we'll discuss below) than a processed cocoa powder.
The Magic Of Theobromine
It's unfortunate that doctors as nutrition experts rarely look for value in chocolate beyond the antioxidant content. Antioxidants are far from the only beneficial compounds found in cacao. The most common of these compounds is theobromine, a compound belonging to a class of chemicals known as xanthines, to which caffeine also belongs. However, where caffeine is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant, theobromine acts primarily as a cardiovascular and metabolic stimulant. As a cardiovascular stimulant, theobromine stimulates blood flow throughout the body by dilating blood vessels (vasodilation) and slightly raising heart rate.
This particular function is what makes cacao and chocolate so potentially powerful. The cardiovascular and metabolic stimulation from a good dose of theobromine certainly produces a net feeling of stimulation. However, in contrast to the CNS stimulation of caffeine, which comes from direct effects on your neurotransmitters, the energizing experience from theobromine comes as an indirect consequence of the cardiovascular stimulation. More blood (and thus oxygen and nutrients) are transported into the brain and experienced energy and cognitive performance improve as a result. This is a far more sustainable (and overall, healthier) type of stimulation in my opinion.
Theobromine As Medicine
While the stimulating and energizing properties of theobromine are nice as an alternative to more taxing stimulants, this doesn't account for why I am so enthusiastic about the nutritional and medicinal values of this compound. Because theobromine dilates blood vessels and stimulates blood flow, it is quite useful as both a detoxifier and in aiding the delivery of nutrients and medicines deep into tissues throughout the body.
When blood flow is opened up as a result of vasodilation, otherwise stagnant toxins are able to be flushed out and neutralized or processed for elimination from the body. In this way, cacao enhances the efficacy of its own antioxidants as they are pushed deeper into the body as a result of the vasodilation. When other active nutritional detoxifiers are paired with cacao, they become more effective as they are circulated to more of the body and have more potential neutralize toxins. This is why we chose to pair the powerful detoxifiers spirulina and chlorella with high-quality raw cacao in Synchro Genesis. The combination of these two creates a detoxifying power a step beyond what either cacao or spirulina/chlorella would have if consumed alone.
Just as theobromine allows detoxifiers to move deeper into tissues, it will have the same effect with compounds from foods that fall closer to the nutraceutical category. Here I'm referring to functional plant (or mushroom) foods that have a more specific effect on the metabolism. Common examples include cordyceps mushroom (for cardiovascular health), turmeric (anti-inflammatory), and reishi (immune support). All of these functional plant foods, and most of the hundreds of others in use, become more powerful when paired with cacao. Moving back to Synchro Genesis for a second, we recognized the potential in pairing one of our favorite functional plant foods (maca root) with cacao. Cacao allows the hormone-supporting phytonutrients found in maca to be absorbed and utilized more fully by the endocrine system, where they have their effect. The result of the pairing is greater hormonal support than maca consumed on its own.
We also shouldn't overlook the capacity of theobromine to stimulate traditional nutrients to move deeper into tissues. Particularly if you are an athlete or training in any capacity, delivering nutrients deeper into rebuilding muscles and other tissues will significantly aid and speed the recovery and rebuilding process. Put simply, you'll feel better and see results faster in your training if you are using cacao to assist your body in better delivering critical nutrients throughout your body.
Other Beneficial Compounds
Chocolate is famous for it's mood-lifting properties. Part of this perhaps comes from the experience of eating something delicious and sugary, but there's clearly a power to chocolate that is a bit more meaningful and lasting than eating other sugary foods.
Cacao contains phenylethylamine, a compound that occurs naturally in our own bodies. Although phenylethylamine breaks down quite quickly once it's in our bodies (5-15 minutes), it stimulates a release of mood-lifting chemicals norepinephrine and dopamine, the effect of which may outlast the actual presence of phenylethylamine in our bloodsteam.
Cacao also contains anandamide and similar compounds that mimic the effect of anandamide. Anandamide is a neurotransmitter that interacts with our endogenous cannabinoid system, the same system famously responsible for producing the "runner's high" achieved by endurance athletes after a long workout.
Like antioxidants and theobromine, phenylethylamine and anandamide are both degraded in the heating and alkalizing process. This further explains why high-quality raw cacao possesses so much more nutritional and functional value than processed cocoa and chocolate.
Quality, Quality, Quality
While processing (or lack thereof) is the biggest determinant of the nutritional value of your cacao or chocolate product will be, it is not the only determinant. The quality of the initial tree, pod and bean is hugely important as well. Three things play into this: genetics, soil quality and growing conditions.
All of the beneficial compounds in cacao covered above are what's referred to as secondary metabolites, or compounds that not used by the plant in its own metabolic processes. Because these compounds are not essential to the cacao tree, they will only be produced in abundance when the tree is healthy.
As an example, the cacao we that goes into Synchro Genesis comes from natural, old-growth stands of heirloom Criollo cacao trees (great genetics) grown in mineral-rich volcanic soil (great soil quality) watered with spring water irrigation at high altitudes in the mountains of Ecuador (great growing conditions). The result is what we believe to be the most flavorful and nutritionally valuable cacao on the planet. Hence, why we put 7 grams of the stuff in each serving.
Unfortunately, most of the cacao produced worldwide is of low quality. Much of it comes from unhealthy trees with poor genetics grown on huge cacao plantations (primarily in Africa). While most of this product goes to companies like Nestle and Mars, even among the raw cacao retail products there are huge differences in quality. If a raw cacao brand isn't talking explicitly on their website or packaging about genetics and soil quality, you should assume that it's not a top-quality cacao. There are a handful of great raw cacao products out there, but it will take a bit of research to find them.
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Graham Ryan is the creator and lead writer for Synchro Life. Biochemist and nutritionist by training. Athlete, yoga teacher and relentless experimenter by obsession. Google