Today I received an e-mail that I found very frustrating, to the point where I felt I must speak out. The subject was “3 Benefits of Raw Cacao”, so I wanted to know how these were being substantiated, since in my opinion, cacao is not a health food.
The first stated benefit was that of weight loss. Wow, that’s a powerful claim, and one that can make you millions since the weight loss industry is absolutely huge. Prove that all people have to do to lose weight is eat your product and you’ve got a captive audience and you’ll be financially set for life! If only it were that simple. And with cacao, of course, it is not, sorry. The information quoted related to the mineral chromium, not cacao. Chromium, along with vanadium, is a mineral which plays an important role in the regulation of blood sugar, and chromium and vanadium deficiencies can, as some authors state, be responsible for food cravings and weight gain as a result of the overeating that follows. Yes, cacao does contain some chromium, but that does not mean that eating raw chocolate bars will make you lose weight! If you look at the ingredients in raw chocolate bars, you will see cacao butter, which is high in fat, as well as, usually, agave syrup, which is dreadful stuff, pretty much guaranteed to cause weight gain. Agave is high in fructose and prevents the normal secretion of leptin, a satiety hormone that shuts off the appetite. If you want to top up your chromium and vanadium levels, wheatgrass juice and seaweed would be a much better option without the downsides, but people don’t make money out of that. Purveyors of raw cacao products make money by feeding people’s indulgences and by telling them that it’s fine to eat an addictive substance because it’s raw, and moreover, they can sell it to you.
Secondly, the e-mail states that cacao is good for the heart because it lowers blood pressure. Looking more closely, this is a totally unsubstantiated claim. The study that was quoted to make this inappropriate claim was published in the British Medical Journal and related to the use of magnesium supplementation, not cacao, in patients with arterial hypertension and congestive heart failure. Many, many people use this trick to sell their product. “Study X shows that magnesium is good for condition Y and Z, my product contains magnesium, therefore my product is good for condition Y and Z too.” In the case of cacao, this is not only highly misleading but also dangerous. Regular use of cacao stimulates the adrenal glands as a result of the chemicals theophylline, caffeine and theobromine. This not only increases the heart rate but also stimulates the secretion of adrenaline and cortisol, both of which, in the long term, are highly detrimental to heart health, are a cause of raised blood pressure, and can lead to adrenal exhaustion. The study published in the BMJ did not use this company’s product in their research. Had they done so, this would have been a legitimate claim. Since they did not, it has to be put under the banner of misleading nonsense, along with any studies that “claim” that drinking coffee is good for you.
Claim number 3 – cacao boosts your energy levels and your libido. Yes, if all else fails, get them with the energy and sex thing. No one can resist that! There is a compound in cacao called PEA (phenylethylamine) which is supposed to enhance libido, but PEA can also be obtained via exercising, which does not lead to the overstimulating and adrenal-stressing effect that cacao consumption does. PEA does indeed enhance mood, but several scientists have questioned its oral absorption – the best effects seem to be exercise-derived rather than food-derived. Nirvana is perhaps best sought at the gym rather than the chocolate sales counter. As far as energy goes, the “energy” you get from cacao is false stimulation, not the increased synthesis of ATP via the Krebs cycle in the mitochondria. It is perceived as energy as a result of the overstimulation of the adrenal glands by the aforementioned phytochemicals. After the high will inevitably come the low. This false stimulation can on occasions be useful – if you have to drive a long way and don’t want to fall asleep at the wheel, a few cacao nibs or beans can be enough to keep you awake. But don’t, whatever you do, get sucked into the negative spiral of adrenal stimulation followed by crash, stimulation followed by crash. The phrase “taking a whip to a tired horse” springs to mind. Don’t do it to your body; it is false stimulation, and it can take a long time for exhausted adrenal glands to heal.
So, next time you see anyone making a claim that a prestigious medical journal substantiates the use of their product, look a little closer into what the research is really telling you. You might find that it is misleading at best, and potentially downright dangerous.