In this article I have done my best to outline the different points of view and my personal experience and to craft a conclusion based on my research.
HISTORIC USE OF CACAO
The use of chocolate had many ritualistic, spiritual and political meanings for the ancient people throughout history. Cacao was considered a “God Food” and was used in combination with hallucinogenic mushrooms in religious rituals. Native people also regarded cacao as a medicinal herb to treat a range of conditions including diarrhoea, kidney infections, scorpion bites and fatigue.
The Mayans fermented, dried, roasted, removed the cacao shells, and ground them into paste. This was often combined with water, cornmeal, chilli peppers, and other spices, then poured back and forth between two containers to create a frothy head.
Later cacao was also prepared as a drink where the cacao beans were mixed with cornmeal, honey, vanilla, chilli and other spices. This nutritious drink was the most common Mayan method of consuming chocolate. The “superior”, ones who could afford to, would savour it at the end of a meal. Cacao beans were so highly valued that they were used as currency.
After doing some research, it seems that cacao was savoured and used in very small portions, which is very different to the abundant daily use it receives these days.
Raw cacao is rich in magnesium, iron, chromium, vanadium, copper, zinc, phosphorus and contains the highest concentration of antioxidants in the world. Its magnesium content supports the heart, increases brain power, relaxes muscles, and helps build strong bones. Its iron content keeps the blood healthy and fights anaemia, while its zinc content strengthens the immune system and maintains healthy nails, skin and hair.
Cacao is a “delivery vehicle.” It dilates the cells, working to drive nutrition deep into the body, which is why it’s so great in combination with other medicinal food and herbs.
Cacao’s stimulating effects makes people believe it’s high in caffeine, when in fact, it contains only a minute amount of caffeine. The similar alkaloid, theobromine, is what gives cacao its most stimulating effect. Caffeine is said to be a nervous system stimulant, whereas theobromine is a cardiovascular stimulant, increasing heart function and blood flow. Cacao contains double as much theobromine than caffeine.
The stimulating effects of cacao has the potential to impair liver function as well as exhaust the adrenal glands if consumed in large amounts. Its overuse can also cause anxiety, rapid heart rate, and insomnia in the short term. Long term effects can include addiction, irregular heart beat and chronic fatigue.
Some say that the quality of cacao has an impact on the way it affects the body. David Wolfe explains that about 100 years ago many different hybrid types of raw chocolate surfaced, claiming to be real raw cacao. When in fact they are genetically modified, not wild grown and have been heavily fermented. How much the quality affects the downsides of cacao – I’m not sure.
THE PROCESS OF CREATING CACAO PRODUCTS
Author and Health Educator Frederic Patenaude says:
“Some people claim that raw cacao is perfectly healthy because it’s a fruit. Because I live in Costa Rica half the year, I know what a real cacao fruit is. There’s a sweet/acidic pulp surrounding the seeds, and the way to eat the fruit is simply suck on the seeds like a candy, and then throw away the seeds! Why? They are not edible and taste horrible in their completely raw, natural state”.
Another controversial topic is the process of creating cacao products. Once harvested, cacao beans need to be fermented before they are edible. A lot of the microbes that assist this process create toxins called mycotoxins which destroy nervous tissue, suppress immune function, and are carcinogenic. Their concentration depends on the correct harvesting, fermentation and storage of the beans. So I understand this is where the quality of the cacao you consume really matters!
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
When I first discovered raw cacao powder 6 years ago, I instantly fell in love with the deep rich chocolatey flavour and consumed it every day with no issues. Unfortunately, over time and for some reason, I developed cardiac arrhythmia (fast and irregular heartbeats) after eating it.
After many months of experimenting with how much raw cacao I could have without the negative side effects, I chose to give it up, because it seemed no matter how little I had, I always experienced arrhythmia.
I’m not entirely sure, but I believe the cause of the downsides was my weak adrenals and the nervous system issues I was dealing with. This resulted in my body becoming very sensitive, especially to natural stimulants. On the other hand, there are many people who have never suffered from adrenal issues, but also feel the same effects.
HOW MUCH RAW CACAO SHOULD YOU CONSUME?
First I want to express the importance of choosing a super high quality cacao. Look for products that are 100 percent raw and certified organic including cacao paste, butter, powder, nibs, and beans.
If you are generally healthy and have a strong adrenal function you may not feel the stimulating side effects of raw cacao and therefore can consume more than someone who is affected. According to David Wolfe, a suitable amount of cacao would be 3-4 beans (1 tsp) per 100 pounds (45kg) of body weight per day. David then goes on to say that an excessive amount of cacao would be 11-33 beans per 100 pounds of body weight.
If you are or have experienced adrenal exhaustion, I would recommend only consuming raw cacao every once in a while (experiment for yourself) or completely avoiding it until until your health is back on track.
I believe we should respect raw cacao’s historic usage and medicinal qualities and not go overboard with its consumption. If you show signs of sensitivity, listen to your body and avoid it completely. Otherwise, experiment with the amount and see what works best for your body and mind.
You can also honour cacao’s historic use and use it in a ceremonial way. For example, consuming some before a physically demanding activity or exercise, or as part of a social celebration, or even just for enjoyment and fun!