The Dark Side of Dark Chocolate

Dark ChocolateI love dark chocolate. You love dark chocolate. Everyone but the most soulless, coldhearted, and puppy-hating among us love dark chocolate. And I hesitated even writing this post because the scientific evidence that dark chocolate offers numerous health benefits when consumed in moderation is substantial and, in my opinion, undeniable. However, there is a “dark side” to dark chocolate. That doesn’t mean dark chocolate is “bad,” just that nothing in this life is binary. Like any other healthy food we eat, there are caveats and limitations. Things to keep in mind.

So let’s take a look at some of the murkier aspects of dark chocolate to see if there’s anything we would be better of being aware of.

It’s food, not manna from the gods with magical properties and negative calories.

As healthy as it (or any food) might be, and as many unique polyphenols and hepatoprotective fatty acids and reactive oxygen species-scavenging abilities it might have, dark chocolate still contains calories. It’s still energy-dense candy that will make you gain weight if you eat too much of it. 100 grams of dark chocolate has over 500 calories, give or take and depending on sugar content. That’s a solid meal that some people are treating like a free supplement.

How much is too much? That depends on what you do with the rest of your day. If you’re really active and/or account for chocolate in your overall food intake, you can eat a bit more. But a little bit goes a long way. That’s exactly why I suggest (and personally prefer) the high-cacao chocolates – you get more bang for your buck and don’t need (or want) so much. A square, maybe two squares, maybe three or four of the 85%+ dark chocolate provides plenty of benefits and any more is frankly unpalatable. Studies showing the cardiovascular and blood flow benefits of chocolate use anything from 6.3 grams to 100 grams of chocolate, with most falling somewhere in the middle. This is potent stuff and you don’t really need a lot of it.

Not all chocolate is created equal.

I probably don’t have to say this, but any chocolate with less than 85% cacao is veering dangerously close to Hershey’s territory. The dark chocolate you eat should be bitter. It should bite back. It should last ten or fifteen seconds in your mouth before melting. Again, not all chocolate is created equal.

It might be addictive.

Scientists aren’t sure what’s responsible for the “addiction,” but people definitely crave chocolate. It’s the most commonly craved food in most studies on the topic.

But why?

It’s probably a combination of the sugar, the psychoactive compounds in cocoa (caffeine, theobromine, anandamide, and dozens of others yet to be quantified and qualified), the texture, and the high calorie content that make chocolate such an attractive food. Who doesn’t like sweet, energy-dense, delicious, mood-altering food?

Eating too much, even of a good thing like chocolate, can have negative metabolic effects that counteract the beneficial ones.

It can contain mycotoxins.

Mycotoxins are, well, toxins produced by mold. Aflatoxin-producing molds are endemic in the tropics and frequently show up in commodity crops like coffee, corn, peanuts, and cacao. Of cocoa products, dark chocolate is the most likely to have mycotoxins, while low-cocoa chocolates like white chocolate have very little to none. Is it a problem?

I think it depends. Certain people seem especially sensitive to mycotoxins. Take Dave Asprey of the Bulletproof Executive, who really harps on the mycotoxin issue and gets a lot of flak for it from people who think he’s exaggerating. It’s clear that he’s sensitive to them while others are not. Mycotoxins clearly do exist in some samples of dark chocolate, though rarely exceeding levels generally recognized to be safe. They’re not imaginary. Do I worry about them? Not personally, because I haven’t noticed any negative symptoms, they’re not present in every piece of dark chocolate, and when they are present it rarely exceeds the safety limit (which, again, might be too high for some individuals).

If dark chocolate is giving you symptoms of mycotoxin toxicity, or any negative symptoms for that matter, you shouldn’t eat it.

Cocoa flavanols are excellent, but there is no way to know the flavanol content of a particular bar.

Eating dark chocolate with a higher percentage of cacao (85% and up) is a good start, but any two given bars, even if they’re from the same batch with identical cacao content, will have different levels of flavanols. That’s a natural consequence of consuming real, whole food. The nutrient content of two members of the same plant species will differ from one to another, as mother nature doesn’t deal with beakers and microgram scales when she’s doling out the micronutrients and producing polyphenols.

But it does mean that your favorite dark chocolate that tastes so good and so smooth that you can’t believe it’s chock full of antioxidants might not be so healthy. Cocoa flavanols are generally quite bitter, so bitterness is a rough barometer for antioxidant content.

It contains a substance “related to amphetamine.”

In just about every scary anti-cocoa article I’ve read, the author makes a big deal about a chocolate alkaloid called phenethylamine (PEA). What is PEA? PEA is in the same chemical family as amphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy), mescaline (found in peyote), and all sorts of illicit substances, but it’s also a human neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation, and we endogenously manufacture psychoactive amounts of PEA in our own bodies on a regular basis. Does this mean our central nervous systems are basically meth labs? No. PEA is an important neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and can trigger the release of dopamine and norepinephrine. Some have even called it the “love hormone.”

Besides, oral PEA isn’t active unless you inhibit monoamine oxidase, the enzyme that breaks it down and prevents it from reaching the brain. If you want to get the stimulatory and other psychoactive, potentially negative effects of PEA, you have to take a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) along with it. In fact, since depressed people have lower levels of PEA and related metabolites, concurrent PEA and MAOI supplementation has been shown to improve mood and have anti-depressant qualities. Chocolate also improves mood, although via polyphenol action, not PEA. Perhaps depressed people who tend to eat more chocolate are actually (and successfully) trying to self-medicate.

Are we chocolate-eaters safe from PEA, then? A recent study posits a connection between chocolate, PEA, and Parkinson’s disease, and in vitro research suggests a mechanism for PEA-induced neurodegeneration. But they’re talking about endogenous PEA – the kind that’s made in the body and gets to the brain – not chocolate-derived PEA. And another study found that PEA levels are depressed in patients with Parkinson’s disease, so there’s no clear answer either way.

It can cause migraines.

One of the more commonly reported migraine triggers is dark chocolate, with the caffeine, phenethylamine, and/or tyramine content getting the blame. Caffeine is present in greater amounts in many other foods, like coffee and tea – although many caffeine abstainers could be unaware of the caffeine in chocolate and thus susceptible to it. PEA is a minor part of chocolate that isn’t even orally active, while tyramine is found in greater amounts in cheese, aged meats, and other cured or fermented items.

But one trial found that among frequent migraine and other headache sufferers, dark chocolate was no more a trigger than carob. An earlier double blind study in people who reported having migraines after consuming chocolate also found that chocolate was not the cause. One theory is that whatever is causing the migraine also causes the desire for and subsequent consumption of chocolate.

Still, a migraine is nothing to be trifled with, and I find it hard to believe that everyone reporting chocolate as a trigger is “just mistaken” or “lying to themselves.” I don’t discount personal, direct experience as readily as some. Don’t eat chocolate if it triggers migraines.

It supports child slavery, depending on the source.

A disconcertingly large portion of the cacao grown on the Ivory Coast of West Africa is handled by child laborers, often indentured against their will. Slaves, essentially.

Child slavery/labor doesn’t affect the nutrient content of the chocolate, but I find it does leave a bad taste in the mouth. Some would counter that it’s difficult to find any food with purely ethical origins. That may be true. Agriculture can be a dirty business. Still, it’s good to make better choices when we can and when we know that an ethical problem exists. Spending a little extra or being more discerning in your choice of chocolate may not bring about world peace or end suffering, but it does make a small difference. It’s better than nothing. And hey, the producers that pay attention to labor ethics tend to also pay attention to the quality of their chocolate.

Here’s a list of companies that get their chocolate from ethical farms. And here’s another list. These aren’t exhaustive, but they get you started. You can also look for “Fair Trade” on the label.

In lieu of a “Fair Trade”-type stamp on the package, get chocolate made from cacao grown in South or Central America, since child labor/slavery isn’t an issue in those regions.

All that said, do I still recommend the regular if moderate consumption of dark chocolate? Yes. I was worried about the coming chocolate shortage disrupting the steady flow of my “brown gold” if you people kept buying up all the chocolate. Potential problems exist, but none of them are so monumental that you should fear the stuff. Obviously, if dark chocolate gives you migraines, triggers binges, or makes you feel awful and gain belly fat, don’t eat it. But if you’re enjoying your dark chocolate and your health is good and you’re pleased with the effect it has on your body weight, go for it.

Just remember that dark chocolate is ultimately candy – a high quality treat with specific health benefits that you should savor and enjoy in moderate doses, not gorge on as if it were a meal.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What are your thoughts? Is dark chocolate overrated as a health food?


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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