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Is Chocolate Paleo?

By Kyle Cordain, B.A.
February 15, 2017
Is Chocolate Paleo? image

On February 14th every year millions of people across the globe indulge in various chocolate assortments of all flavors, textures, shapes, and sizes. Most people following the Paleo Lifestyle will feel obligated to avoid partaking in the widespread chocolate consumption, and with good reason. The average milk chocolate bar you see while strolling the aisles of your local grocery store typically contains little cacao or cocoa based ingredients and proportionately higher quantities of sugar, milk, lactose, soy, preservatives, and other non-paleo ingredients. These types of chocolate bars should definitely be avoided.

The primary motive for consuming chocolate, while following a Paleo Lifestyle, should be to accrue the wonderful benefits associated with chocolate consumption while avoiding the suboptimal ingredients that often dilute it.

Luckily, there are manufacturers nowadays that produce chocolate bars that are free of soy and dairy and are proportionately much higher in cocoa based ingredients than sugar. These bars are often labeled as “dark chocolate.”

Aim for dark chocolate bars that have cacao percentages that are 80 percent and above. Even the highest percentage cacao chocolate bars typically contain subtle amounts of added sugar, but moderate consumption of chocolate of this variety should not be cause for great concern. Especially if you incorporate the “85% Paleo - 15% non-Paleo” rule into your eating plan. If you are unwilling to compromise on any sugar in your dark chocolate and can handle the bitterness, 100 percent pure baker’s chocolate or “cacao nibs” are available for purchase at numerous grocery outlets across the world and are almost always free of any other ingredients besides chocolate or other cacao derivatives.

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The Origin, Manufacture and Historical Significance of Chocolate

Theobroma cacao is a relatively small New World tree species found in the understory of the tropical forests spanning across Mesoamerica. The tree produces pods that contain seeds or cacao “beans” which are fermented, dried, cleaned, roasted, and shelled into “nibs” and ground into a cocoa mass which is then liquefied to produce “chocolate liquor.” The liquor is then processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Most chocolate found in the supermarket today is a mixture of these two components13. Chocolates with higher proportions of cacao solids are thought to have greater antioxidant capabilities due to higher concentrations of polyphenolic compounds20

Many have heard the phrase “the food of the gods” associated with chocolate. This expression references the earliest purveyors of chocolate: the Mayan and Aztec cultures of Central America. The earliest known consumption of chocolate amongst the Mayan culture is associated with the early Olmec society, and dates back to roughly 1900 BCE in the form of a chocolate beverage known as xocolātl which translates to “bitter water”11. Cacao seeds were brewed to create a drink similar in consistency and flavor to what you may recognize as coffee today.

The Aztec culture did not demonstrate widespread chocolate consumption until the 15th century when newly formed Mayan trade routes allowed for chocolate to become more readily available. Great reverence for chocolate by Mayan and Aztec cultures is demonstrated in the plethora of archaeological remains uncovered from these past societies. Maya hieroglyphs, “cacao god” carvings in bowls, paintings, and artistic figurines indicate that chocolate was used both ceremoniously and as an important part of everyday life11. The Aztecs associated chocolate with their god Quetzalcoatl11.

The value of chocolate became so pronounced that cacao beans eventually became a source of currency in ancient Aztec society. A pre-Columbian turkey could be purchased for 100 cacao beans16. Early European explorers including Christopher Columbus and Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés documented the widespread prevalence of cacao in Mesoamerican societies. It is reported that the Aztec ruler, Montezuma drank a chocolate brew habitually after every dinner meal6.

Post Spanish conquest of the Aztecs coincided with increasing chocolate importation into Europe. Honey, sugar, and vanilla were added to subdue the inherently bitter chocolate flavor4. As chocolate became increasingly engrained into European culture in the 17th and 18th century, Christian sectors of the population began to question the exhilarating effects of new drinks such as chocolate, coffee, and tea in their society. Scientific debate related to the potential health risks and benefits of chocolate consumption peaked in Florence, Italy during the 18th century. Chocolate and other caffeinated beverages would have been banned if it were not for the input from the scientific and medical community during this time period12. Nowadays with the vast quantity of research published on chocolate, the benefits of consumption are obvious.

Nutritional Density of Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate is an excellent source of magnesium, copper, iron, manganese, phosphorus and potassium while remaining a low source of dietary sodium. The table below displays three nutrient profiles for various forms of dark chocolate categorized by cacao solids percentages.

Is Chocolate Paleo? image

Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate Consumption

Jeanne Calment of France and Leandra Lumbrerars of Mexico are two of the oldest humans to ever walk the planet. Both super-centenarians lived just past 120 years of age. Fascinatingly, both of these women shared a devout love for chocolate. Jeanne Calment favored darker chocolate varieties and was reported to consume an astonishing 2.2 pounds of chocolate per week14!

Recently published research suggests that foods high in polyphenolic compounds such as the flavanols found in dark chocolate can potentially prevent and or slow down age related illnesses 1,2. Although the direct effect of chocolate consumption on extending human lifespan is unproven in scientific research, recent experiments with fruit flies fed isolated polyphenols from either blueberry or apple have resulted in an extended mean lifespan of approximately 10% 15,21.

Perhaps the longevity benefits loosely associated with regular dark chocolate consumption are mediated through a cumulative effect; other positive health outcomes associated with dark chocolate intake may have an overall protective effect in preventing age related illnesses commonly observed in western society.

These are a few notable examples of the role of chocolate in facilitating optimal human health and possibly preventing age-related diseases:

  • Metabolism: Various studies have shown that flavanols like those found in dark chocolate may provide significant vascular protection due to their inherent antioxidant properties and increased nitric oxide bioavailability. This in turn improves insulin sensitivity and lowers blood pressure in healthy individuals9. Improved insulin sensitivity generally translates to lower diabetes risk10.
  • Cognitive Performance and Mental Well-Being: Recently published trials performed on small groups of human subjects suggests that consumption of cocoa flavanols results in increased cerebral blood flow to the brain7 which can in turn provide enhanced motivation, attention, and possibly neural efficiency8. Further evidence suggests that flavanols like those found in cocoa accumulate in segments of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Accumulation of flavanols in the brain results in neuroprotective and neuromodulatory effects that promote neuronal function and brain connectivity. Over time the cumulative effects of consistent flavanol consumption might play a role in preventing or delaying the onset of age and disease related cognitive decline18. Finally, various studies have drawn correlations between flavanol-rich cocoa intake and improved perception of mood in human beings17.
  • Cardiovascular Health: In a 2011 meta-analysis of seven studies examining a total of 14,875 participants with a high level of chocolate consumption, there was an approximately 37 percent reduction in all cases of cardiovascular disease after adjusting for all measures of association5. Another meta-analysis in 2010 compiling 10 clinical trials consisting of 320 participants with treatment durations lasting between 2 and 12 weeks demonstrated a significant reduction in low-density lipoprotein (LDL, “bad cholesterol”) levels in those consuming flavanol-rich cocoa products. High density lipoprotein (HDL, “good cholesterol”) and triglyceride levels showed no statistically significant change19.
  • Anti-Cancer: The relatively high antioxidant activity associated with cocoa or chocolate consumption could be helpful in limiting the damage caused by epigenetic and genotoxic carcinogens associated with cancer formation. The flavanols found in cocoa also appear to have anti-proliferative effects on cancer cells as well3

Keep in mind that chocolate or cacao naturally contains two stimulating compounds: caffeine and theobromine in small quantities. For this reason, it may be wise to moderate your daily intake of dark chocolate to reasonable quantities if you are sensitive to either of these compounds.

Take Away Message

Chocolate is a food with a rich history that has had both a stigmatic and highly appreciated value associated with its consumption from the Mayans and Aztecs to the present day. With the health benefits of dark chocolate consumption amounting, you shouldn’t hesitate to add a square or two of dark chocolate to your Paleo Diet for the Valentine’s holiday and the days to follow.

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[1] Ali, F., Ranneh, Y., Ismail, A., & Esa, N. M. (2015). Identification of phenolic compounds in polyphenols-rich extract of Malaysian cocoa powder using the HPLC-UV-ESI—MS/MS and probing their antioxidant properties. Journal of food science and technology, 52(4), 2103-2111.

[2] Angeloni, C., Pirola, L., Vauzour, D., & Maraldi, T. (2012). Dietary polyphenols and their effects on cell biochemistry and pathophysiology. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2012.

[3] Baharum, Z., Akim, A. M., Hin, T. Y. Y., Hamid, R. A., & Kasran, R. (2016). Theobroma cacao: review of the extraction, isolation, and bioassay of its potential anti-cancer compounds. Tropical life sciences research, 27(1), 21.

[4] Bensen, Amanda (2008). . Retrieved January 31, 2017, from "A Brief History of Chocolate". Smithsonian Magazine.

[5] Buitrago-Lopez, A., Sanderson, J., Johnson, L., Warnakula, S., Wood, A., Di Angelantonio, E., & Franco, O. H. (2011). Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis. Bmj, 343, d4488.

[6] Burleigh, R. (2002). Chocolate: Riches from the Rainforest (Scholastic Ed). Abrams Books for Young Readers.

[7] Dinges, D. F. (2006). Cocoa flavanols, cerebral blood flow, cognition, and health: going forward. Journal of cardiovascular pharmacology, 47, S223-S225.

[8] Field, D. T., Williams, C. M., & Butler, L. T. (2011). Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in an acute improvement in visual and cognitive functions. Physiology & behavior, 103(3), 255-260.

[9] Grassi, D., Lippi, C., Necozione, S., Desideri, G., & Ferri, C. (2005). Short-term administration of dark chocolate is followed by a significant increase in insulin sensitivity and a decrease in blood pressure in healthy persons. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 81(3), 611-614.

[10] Greenberg, J. A. (2015). Chocolate intake and diabetes risk. Clinical Nutrition, 34(1), 129-133.

[11] Kerr, Justin. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from "Chocolate: A Mesoamerican Luxury 1200—1521 – Obtaining Cacao". Field Museum.

[12] Lippi, D. (2013). Chocolate in history: food, medicine, medi-food.

[13] Miller, A. (2007). CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from //

[14] Mullen, W. (2014). Jeanne Calment: 122 Years of Chocolate. Retrieved February 01, 2017, from

[15] Peng, C., Chan, H. Y. E., Huang, Y., Yu, H., & Chen, Z. Y. (2011). Apple polyphenols extend the mean lifespan of Drosophila melanogaster. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 59(5), 2097-2106.

[16] Peniche, Piedad (1990). Retrieved January 31, 2017, from "When cocoa was used as currency – pre-Columbian America – The Fortunes of Money". UNESCO Courier

[17] Smith, D. F. (2013). Benefits of flavanol-rich cocoa-derived products for mental well-being: A review. Journal of Functional Foods, 5(1), 10-15.

[18] Sokolov, A. N., Pavlova, M. A., Klosterhalfen, S., & Enck, P. (2013). Chocolate and the brain: neurobiological impact of cocoa flavanols on cognition and behavior. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(10), 2445-2453.

[19] Tokede, O. A., Gaziano, J. M., & Djoussé, L. (2011). Effects of cocoa products/dark chocolate on serum lipids: a meta-analysis. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 65(8), 879-886.

[20] Vinson, J. A., & Motisi, M. J. (2015). Polyphenol antioxidants in commercial chocolate bars: Is the label accurate? Journal of Functional Foods, 12, 526-529.f

21.[21] Wilson, M. A., Shukitt‐Hale, B., Kalt, W., Ingram, D. K., Joseph, J. A., & Wolkow, C. A. (2006). Blueberry polyphenols increase lifespan and thermotolerance in Caenorhabditis elegans. Aging cell, 5(1), 59-68.

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