I was recently  shown some data from a Consumerlabs.com report regarding the flavanol content of chocolate and cocoa. The same report also highlighted the levels of heavy metals found in cocoa/chocolate.  Now I’m a big proponent of chocolate and cocoa – so I wanted to make some comments about this.

It’s a good thing for us to be made aware of the ingredient pros and cons of any super-food we’re looking to consume.   However, nutritional profiles should always be considered in the context of realistic consumption volumes, and based on this, we can assess the potential for upsides or downsides of a given food.
When I reviewed some of the charts in the Consumerlabs report – I wasn’t surprised at the wide range of flavanol content across the cocoas and chocolate that was tested.   There are a number of published papers on the various effects of cocoa/chocolate processing and its effects on flavanol effect.   And just to remind you,  Cocoa is a true-superfood when you consider the research on its  anti-oxidation, anti-inflammation, weight-loss inducing, endurance improving and UV-light (sun) protective effects.

Let’s talk about heat processing!  There are many antioxidant compounds found in the cacao bean – and heat effects each of these compounds differently. In fact some compounds are reduced, while others are dramatically increased in antioxidant potential, when heat is applied.  Epicatechin for example is drastically reduced with heating the beans to over 70 Celsius, however catechin increases with heat. For unfermented beans, catechin rises almost 700%, and in fermented beans by over 600% according to research conducted in 2010, in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. Just to be complete, natural bean drying, has little effect on flavanol levels.

The second processing treatment on cocoa is alkalizing.  This is commonly performed on cocoa  – for both marketing and taste reasons.  When cacao is “dutched” (i.e. processing with alkali) – you reduce the bitterness.  Also the color changes to a dark, dark brown – which creates its ‘dark chocolate’ marketability. The actual color of non-alkalized cocoa is a reddish-brown color. So this is a real catch for consumers as heavily marketed ‘dark organic cocoa powders’ have been mostly treated with alkali.  Here’s the bad news – according to the above report and others, the dutching process can almost totally remove the flavanols from cacao. In the case of epicatechin 98% is lost, and for catechein up to 80% is lost through alkalizing.  So the bottom-line  is – when you buy cocoa powder make sure the colour is red-brown. This is the one you want and will have the highest flavanol levels.  When you buy chocolate – read on the label whether it has been dutched or treated with alkali – if it has,it will have lost most of its flavanol content.

BUT….. that is only one part of the story.

The other part of the story is the question of heavy metals in Cocoa. Specifically for cocoa, the concerning question is cadmium (Cd) levels. Cd is like many heavy metals, its health concern is in very high doses (i.e. toxicity).  It is actually not that well absorbed by the body – though some occupations can have high exposure to Cd. Smoking can also create high levels of Cd in the body. But for most of us (non-smokers) the question is really about our ingestion/absorption risk, of Cd toxicity.

Based on the World Health Organisation (WHO) 1992 recommendations of tolerable limits for Cd consumption, they have published a level of 7mcgs, per Kg of body-weight, per week.   So for a 75kg person, this translates to 525mcgs per week, or 75mcgs per day.  If you look at the data from ConsumerLabs.com, several of the large cocoa consumer brands have Cd levels, just shy of  1mcg per gram of cocoa.  So a typical 5gram tablespoon of cocoa – would translate to a little less than 5mcgs of Cd.
You would have to consume an extreme amount – like 15 cups of hot chocolate a day, over an extended period time for this to approach the WHO recommendation limits.

Since the 1970s, the average Cd intake has trended downward – which is thought to be due to  a reduction in atmospheric and soil contamination levels.  If you look at the broad and on-going research on cocoa – you recognize just what a powerful superfood cocoa really is, particularly in its undutched non-alkalized form. The Greek meaning of  the Cocoa botanical name, ‘theobromo cacao’ was given for good reason – translated into English, theobromo means “food of the gods”.

If you enjoy it – then go for it – it’s a truly wonderful food.