8 Mar 2019
Chocolate. For many of us, it’s a favorite food. Sometimes pure delight. Sometimes the best way to satisfy a craving. Perhaps, even, a comfort food. It is easy just to leave it at that, but chocolate is actually complicated.
It isn’t just candy.
Chocolate is not all the same. The options run from milk chocolate to pure cacao, the nut from which chocolate is made. As consumers, we have choices ranging from store brands and common names like Hershey’s to fair trade and organic products.
How are we supposed to choose?
First, a brief explanation.
Anything designated pure cacao or 100% cacao has no added fat or sugar. The pure form is where you get the biggest impact from the cacao bean’s nutrients. In fact, cacao is considered by many to be a superfood. In its raw form, cacao is high in iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamin C, some B vitamins, antioxidants, flavonoids, and chromium (which can help to reduce sugar cravings!). Cacao is also a source of tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin, which helps control mood and sleep. It also contains the stimulants caffeine and theobromine; although in much lower amounts than in coffee, these can have positive or negative effects on the body, depending on one’s personal situation.
Are cacao and cocoa the same?
No. Cocoa is processed and contains other ingredients, often sugar and dairy.
The heating process damages some of the nutrients which are present in the raw form, so the nutritional punch of cocoa is not the same. What we consider chocolate is a processed food, and this ranges from milk chocolate (highest in dairy and sugar) to the various types of dark chocolate. Dark chocolate does not contain milk products. The higher the percentage of cacao in the product, the less sugar, usually making it less sweet. The cacao (no longer raw) in dark chocolate is a combination of cocoa powder and cocoa butter, made from cacao beans.
Is that all there is to know?
Not really. Some chocolate bars contain spices and/or soy lecithin (an additive used as an emulsifier to give the chocolate a better “mouthfeel”). The more other ingredients, the less cacao. And, generally speaking, the higher the percentage of cacao, the more nutritious.
One more important thing we all need to know.
Two heavy metals, lead and cadmium, are highly prevalent in chocolate products. Who would have thought? Turns out that both lead and cadmium are present in the soil in varying degrees, depending on where the cacao is grown; a percentage is naturally occurring and the rest is from airborne pollutants resulting from industrial processes, or from pesticides and fertilizers. Some gets absorbed through the roots, and some of the contamination occurs during processing and/or shipping.
As You Sow, a non-profit whose vision is “a safe, just, and sustainable world” has tested a a number of chocolate brands for their toxic content and posted the ratings on their website asyousow.org. Surprisingly, a large percentage of chocolate on the market has lead and/or cadmium ratings above the California standards of what is considered safe. California’s standards are stricter than those of the U.S. government. What As You Sow does not tell us – and the information may not be possible to obtain – is whether the heavy metal presence in the chocolate is from naturally occurring elements in the soil or from pollution, pesticides or fertilizers. Acid rain is an equal opportunity polluter. It does not avoid organic farms.
Most environmentalists will state unequivocally that no amount of lead is safe. The risk to children is greater than the risk to adults. Children generally eat more candy, and their bodies absorb these toxins more than those of adults. Double whammy.
What can we chocolate lovers do?
The easiest option is to stick with the products that are healthiest (the darker the better) and are rated the best. (Go to the asyousow.org site and click on ‘toxic chocolate’ to check out the list of tested chocolates.)
What is surprising is that what we expect to be clean has no relation to the actual test results. For example, Endangered Species Chocolate with 88% cacao has levels of both lead and cadmium about the legal limit. Same with Green and Black’s Organic Dark 85% cacao and Equal Exchange with 71% cacao. Even Newman’s Own Organics, NOW Foods Certified Organic 100% Pure Cocoa Powder have unacceptably high levels of heavy metals. What is interesting is that while some Hershey products are contaminated, their 100% Cacao is not.
Ultimately, the question is if the nutritional benefits of raw cacao and very dark chocolate outweigh the risks of heavy metal exposure, if you can’t find the top rated products. If that is the case, my vote would be to eat in moderation and go with the organic products, because at least you will be eliminating exposure from pesticides and fertilizers.