Raw Cacao Pods - Picture By Rodrigo Flores

Real Chocolate,  the guilt-free superfood we all need! Just remember, not all chocolate is created equal... so read on.

A delightful book extract from Marcos Patchett's magical new book on The Secret Life of Chocolate. As a foodie, editor and longstanding chocoholic (only the good stuff) this handsome chocolate tome is essential reading for the most discerning, health-seeking food lover. It's perfect for anyone who yearns to soak up the proven scientific benefits of real chocolate and learn how to source and prepare the dark stuff and reap the food as medicine health benefits - Editor-in-Chief, Alison Jane Reid.

Chocolate with Benefits

A lot has been written about the health benefits of chocolate in recent years.  And it’s true – chocolate does have many useful properties, including a significant reduction in heart attack and stroke risk, diabetes prevention, reduction of skin damage caused by the sun, reducing tooth decay while strengthening tooth enamel, correcting working memory deficits caused by sleep deprivation in women, even – possibly – reducing the risk of some forms of dementia, in addition to more obscure benefits such as prevention of damage to other organs in liver disease.  

The Quality of Chocolate

What some of these articles omit is the importance of the quality of the chocolate, specifically its “cocoa content”; and what most fail to mention completely is the huge variation in quality that “cocoa” may describe.

The term “cocoa” is used in the chocolate industry to refer to the fermented and roasted seeds of Theobroma cacao and all their by-products, such as cocoa powder (defatted, pulverized seeds), cocoa butter (extracted fat), cocoa mass (roasted seeds ground to a liquid), dark chocolate (cocoa mass + cocoa butter + sugar), milk chocolate (sugar + milk powder + cocoa mass + cocoa butter) and white chocolate (sugar + milk powder + cocoa butter).  

The Stuff of Magic!

The magic stuff is the cocoa mass, which contains all the medicinal compounds – stimulating alkaloids such as theobromine and caffeine, antioxidant polyphenols such as the procyanidins and flavonols, and a raft of “fairy dust” compounds found in trace amounts such as anandamide, gamma-amino-butyric acid, and phenethylamine.

Dark Organic Chocolate - Picture Sigmund, Unsplash

A more traditional term for the tree and its seeds is Cacao, the name used by the Maya civilisations in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica (modern-day Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Belize etc.)  The term likely originates from an Olmec word.   Research has identified some of the polyphenols in Cacao as being responsible for many of its health benefits, and as far as commercial chocolate is concerned, these are only to be found in cocoa mass – present in dark chocolate, less so in milk chocolate, and not at all in white chocolate.  Cocoa powder is an interesting case because the fat has been removed, so one may expect the product to be higher in polyphenols; but it turns out that the fat protects the polyphenols from reacting with oxygen in the air, so removing it causes means that cocoa powder usually has less “antioxidant” power than dark chocolate.  

Delicious Drinking Chocolate Extraordinaire!

When buying ordinary chocolate, look for a cocoa content of at least 80% - the remainder is all sugar, and of that 80% “cocoa content”, at least 20% is likely to be added cocoa butter (fat).  Optimally healthful Cacao is traditional drinking chocolate, made from lightly toasted Cacao beans that are ground and mixed with water and spices; hard to come by these days.  But you can buy “couverture”, blocks of solidified cocoa mass; these can be grated, adding spices and sweetening such as vanilla, cinnamon and honey, and whisking into a little boiling water to make thick, dark, foamy drinking chocolate; enough to make you throw away your cocoa powder in disgust.

Making Your Own Drinking Chocolate for its Health-Giving Benefits - Picture Maria Derevia

Of course, most people eat chocolate for its effects on mood.  Some of those effects, particularly with more “adulterated” chocolate (lower content of cocoa mass) may be down to the temporary mood-raising, habituating effects of added sugar or fat.   Cacao itself does have mood-raising properties, owing chiefly to its caffeine content.  But low-dose caffeine isn’t the extent of its powers: in animal models of anxiety, cocoa mass was found to reduce conditioned fear.   In other words, Cacao reduced behavioural signs of learned fear, such as may be found (in their most extreme form) in PTSD.

Chocolate for Stress

Make Your Own Raw Superfood Dark Chocolate Truffles - Picture Dessy Dimcheva

In human trials, 50g dark chocolate lowered the levels of the longer-acting stress steroid cortisol and the fast-acting stress hormone adrenaline detected in saliva and urine within a few hours of administration, and 40g daily dark chocolate did the same after a couple of weeks’ daily use.  Most remarkably, a bigger drop in participants’ stress hormones was recorded in more anxious subjects in the two-week trial, along with a beneficial shift in gut flora.    Another small four-week study also found that daily intake of 41g dark chocolate altered test subjects’ microbiomes, resulting in the presence of more beneficial gut flora such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium, and fewer harmful microbes such as Clostridium.  

This accords with the traditional use of Cacao as a tonic to recover from chronic illnesses such as diarrhoea, and the effects on adrenaline and cortisol observed in these trials suggest Cacao may be a much more valuable therapeutic tool for stress management than was previously suspected – at least by scientists; your average chocolate fan already knows that Cacao is essential medicine.

A Word of Caution

Like any substance, Cacao isn’t for everyone.  While some people claim that chocolate gives them a migraine, and there is some pharmacological rationale for this, it seems that for most people who suffer from migraines this isn’t a problem.   Like coffee and peppermint, Cacao may exacerbate acid reflux, so should be avoided by heartburn sufferers of people diagnosed with GORD.   In Renaissance Europe, Cacao was classified as a “melancholic” substance  – excess melancholy could show up as depression, stiffness, constipation, and overthinking.  Small amounts of Cacao were thought to help clear out melancholy, but large quantities could exacerbate it.  So excessively “melancholic” people may do better to have smaller quantities of Cacao, or to eat chocolate less frequently (say, not more than three times a week).  Put more simply and less Medievally, some people just don’t get on with chocolate.  These people have my sincere condolences, because of all Cacao’s health benefits, the most impressive is that it may extend its lifespan.   Just make sure you’re eating – or even better, drinking - the good stuff.

Extract Adapted from the book The Secret Life of Chocolate By Marcos Patchett. All Rights Reserved.

Medical Herbalist and Author Marcos Patchett

Marcos Patchett is a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and AMH.
When taking herbs, the Institute always recommends seeking the advice of a qualified medical herbalist. Find your nearest herbalist at https://nimh.org.uk/find-a-herbalist/

©MGP 2021


The Secret Life of Chocolate By Marcus Patchett

For those in the US: https://bit.ly/3dVRX1d
For rest of world: https://www.aeonbooks.co.uk
Also available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and good bookstores everywhere
Hardback RRP £75 (708 pages)

About Marcos Patchett

Marcos graduated from Middlesex University’s Herbal Medicine BSc course with first degree honours and the Elsevier science prize for plant pharmacology in 2005.  He worked as a medical herbalist in King’s Cross for several years (2004-2007 and 2012-2013) specialising in complementary care for people living with HIV, and practised from Neal’s Yard remedies’ Therapy Rooms in Covent Garden and, later, Notting Hill, for nine years (2007-2016).  He worked as a dispenser in Middlesex University’s Archway training clinic for their Western Herbal Medicine BSc in 2009-2010, and later went on to become a clinical supervisor for the Western Herbal medicine BSc and MSc courses at Middlesex University’s Integrative Medicine training clinic from 2013-2018.  He is currently an online clinical trainer for Heartwood UK and has a private practice in north London.  His first book, The Secret Life of Chocolate (thesecretlifeofchocolate.com), a comprehensive thirteen-year project on the ancient history, usage, pharmacology, and cultural meaning of Cacao/chocolate, was released in March 2020.


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