Is Raw Cacao Toxic?

Photo courtesy of Ever Jean

Photo courtesy of Ever Jean

Hi Mizpah,
Thanks for your emails – they are very informative and I enjoy receiving them! I recently had a friend send me an article about raw cacao being toxic and wondered what your view is? It is hard to know what to believe when one doesn’t have in depth knowledge of these things, so your view would be greatly appreciated.

Many thanks
Sally Wellbeloved


Great question Sally. Cacao is certainly a controversial subject in the raw food movement and there are many different ideas about how it affects our health. I will give you my conclusions based on the information I have read as well as my personal experiences with cacao.

Traditional Use of Cacao By Native People

It has been documented that native people traditionally didn’t use cacao as a food but it was often added to the psychedelic plant mixtures. The Aztecs believed cacao was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl – the Mayan Winged Serpent – and it was used in combination with hallucinogenic mushrooms in religious rituals, which is still a common practice today with some of the local tribes in Central America.

Other native people use cacao for the same purpose in combination with hallucinogens such as peyote and Ayahuasca and it is said to potentiate the effects of these plants due to a synergistic interaction. Native people also regarded cacao as a medicinal herb to treat a range of conditions including diarrhea, kidney infections, scorpion bites and fatigue.

Later cacao was also prepared as a drink where the cacao beans were mixed with cornmeal, honey, vanilla, chili and other spices in addition to the cacao flower. This combination remains popular in rural areas in Mexico today for its refreshing, aphrodisiac and medicinal effects and is known as tejate.

Based on the history it does appear that cacao was always used in very small quantities and definitely not on a daily basis or in the very large amounts that it is being used by many raw foodists today. So this does appear to deserve some closer evaluation as to whether the use of raw cacao as a food is safe and/or beneficial.

Nutritional Benefits of Cacao

There are many claims made for the nutritional benefits of cacao including its high antioxidant and magnesium content but it appears that you can easily obtain these components by eating a number of other foods. For example, while blueberries contain less antioxidants on a weight basis in comparison with cacao, it is easier to eat them in larger amounts, thus obtain a higher relative intake of antioxidants. Similarly leafy greens are our best source of magnesium and you will have no problems getting enough with a regular intake of green smoothies or green juice.

Negative Effects of Cacao

As for the potential negative effects of cacao on liver and adrenal function I do agree with the premises put forward in the above article. Cacao beans are very high in fat, which can place an extra load on a liver that is functioning under par. Additionally they are high in the omega-6 fatty acids, which can potentially increase inflammatory responses in the body.

Cacao’s stimulating effect also has the potential to negatively impact on liver function as well as to interfere with the normal activity of the adrenal glands. It does contain caffeine so it’s overuse can potentially produce negative effects similar to coffee such as anxiety, rapid heart rate, insomnia in the short term and these have been reported by many raw foodists consuming raw cacao in relatively large amounts. Long-term effects can include addiction, arrythmias and chronic fatigue.

Cacao Improves Mood and Alleviates Depression

On the other hand there is scientific research to suggest that those who frequently consume chocolate are less likely to experience depression and this is most likely due to cacao’s influence on neurotransmitter function. It contains a compound called PEA – dubbed the ‘love chemical’, which is released by our bodies when we fall in love – which enhances mood, improves alertness and promotes a feeling of general well-being. Incidentally this compound can also be found in blue-green algae.

Personal Experiences with Raw Cacao

My personal experiences with cacao have led me to agree with Paul Nison’s conclusions about its use. When I developed cardiac arrythmia I finally gained the motivation I needed to let go of my coffee habit, which alleviated most of my symptoms. However with a relatively high use of cacao (about 2 tablespoons of powdered raw cacao) I once again experienced heart palpitations, although to a lesser degree than occurred when I was drinking coffee.

Conversely when I kept my intake of cacao at a low level and avoided daily use I did not notice any adverse effects and on the contrary experienced an improvement in mood and energy levels that improved my ability to exercise, which enhanced my well-being indirectly. Nonetheless I did find it very difficult to moderate my intake because I loved both the taste and effect of cacao a bit too much, so I made the decision to eliminate cacao from my diet for several months with the intention to give my heart and adrenal glands time to heal and recover.

Those with good general health and strong adrenal function may not notice the depleting effect of regular cacao use, or it may take much longer for adverse effects to become apparent, but for those with patterns of adrenal exhaustion or addictive tendencies, I would recommend complete avoidance of cacao, at least until you feel that your health is back in balance.

Some argue that the quality of the cacao has an impact on the way it affects our body and this may be true to some extent. But it is also important to acknowledge that for those who are very sensitive any amount or variety of cacao can be deleterious.

Raw Cacao is Powerful Medicine

In Western herbal medicine it is known that a large dose of any herb can produce the opposite effect of its intended use. For example, valerian, an herb that is traditionally used for its sedative effects, can actually be stimulating when taken in very high doses or by sensitive individuals. My feeling is that we should approach cacao with the same respect as we do with other potent plant medicines. However, just because high intakes have negative effects this doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to avoid cacao completely.

So How Much Cacao Should We Consume?

According to David Wolfe in his book, Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Futurea low intake of cacao would account to 3-4 cacao beans for each 100 pounds of body weight. If you are a small person like me then this is really not a lot of cacao and would equate to maybe a teaspoon of powdered cacao a day at the most.

Wolfe states that an excessive intake of cacao would be between 11 and 33 cacao beans per 100 pounds of body weight. For someone who weighs 200 pounds this would be anywhere between roughly ½ tablespoon to 3 tablespoons a day – and much less for lighter individuals.

My general advice would be to limit your intake, avoid daily use and to avoid cacao completely if you are showing signs of adrenal exhaustion, chronic fatigue or heart rhythm abnormalities.

We can also use cacao in a ceremonial way, adapted to our modern lives, For example, prior to a physically demanding activity such as a long hike or an intense workout, as part of our social celebrations or even just for enjoyment and fun!

Used with respect there can be a place for cacao in our diets but I do not believe that high intakes on a daily basis have a positive effect and in fact are much more likely to negatively impact our health.

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23 Comments
  1. I’m tripping on cacao at the moment, I enjoy it!

    I know my limits with it and don’t push myself beyond those.

    I will eat it for a week or two then stop for a while.

  2. Are we all forgetting that raw cacao is essentially the same as the cocoa powder that we buy in the stores which no one is frightened to consume?

    According to FDA guidelines, cocoa powder and cacao powder are simply different terms for the same powder, and are nearly interchangeable; however, “cacao powder” specifically refers to raw, unsweetened powder. “Cocoa powder,” on the other hand, may still have a very small amount of cocoa butter present to enhance the flavor subtly.”

    I do realize that the processing that goes into making a Hershey-type cocoa powder will alter it but if we don’t question the cheap stuff I think in moderation we’ll all be safe eating the raw stuff.

  3. Yes Chris, I absolutely agree with you.

    In my experience raw cacao is definitely more stimulating than the roasted cocoa powders and I suspect some of the elements are changed in processing. However I also feel that in appropriate amounts raw cacao can sometimes have a positive effect and in the big picture will not have a significant negative impact for most.

    It is generally only when overused as a stimulating substance where problems can occur, and this applies equally to raw and cooked forms of cacao.

  4. This blogpost is great, unfortunately but for some reason i can’t see your blog on chrome, this is why i had to use an alternate browser.

  5. I was putting two tablespoons of raw cacao in my protein shakes because it tasted so good but have had to stop as it was giving me heart palpitations, and I was honestly on such a high (felt like ecstasy a few times) and was making me really nauseas. I also have a few liver problems which may be why it has affected me worse. I have noticed also that my acne has flared up since taking it. So no more raw cacao for me!!

  6. In addition to the other negative side affects (to the liver, heart and adrenal glands), but not addressed here are the high levels of oxalic acid in raw cacao that inhibit the absorption of calcium.

  7. About five hours ago, I was incredibly exhausted from studying accounting for the previous six. Then, as a study break, a friend and I decided to try out this new recipe for no-bake vegan truffles. The recipe called for 2 cups of cocoa powder and 1 cup of a chopped cocoa bar (as well as agave nectar and other unrelated ingredients). Trying to be as healthy as possible, I bought the 100% cocoa and unsweetened cocoa powder. I had three truffles- each containing about 1 tbsp of the powder and about 1 tbsp of the melted 100% cocoa bar on the outside. Admittedly, I also licked my fingers and the spoons while melting the chocolate, so I probably consumed a little more cocoa than three truffles actually computes. No more than 30 minutes later, intense nausea set in, as well as the constant desire to vomit. I began researching what the hell was going on. Five hours later I am now well informed. I am still wired, though, but thankfully my stomach feels better. For the record, I sleep fine after having a glass of coffee.

  8. THREE CUPS of cocoa total? WOW! When I make chocolate cake it might call for HALF a cup, for a whole cake. How many truffles was that recipe supposed to make? ::::gagging from so much chocolate::::

  9. I was having a lot of fun with cacao, believing it to be healthy as most of the info points to it as containing health properties. (antioxidants, magnesium..)
    That is until I began experiencing heart arrhythmias & abnormal palpitations.
    I stopped for months and have been eating whole foods high in nutrients.

    Today I ate a bit of cacao with a friend for the first time.
    Both my friend & I felt so weird I couldn’t believe it, nor did I want to believe it….
    I have to agree that sure felt toxic to me. I guess my cacao days are over.
    I don’t wish to feel like that ever again.

  10. I am nauseous with diareah after taking two tablespoons of raw cacao powder over a few months. It builds up in your system until your body starts to react negatively and hopefully you stop taking it. it definitely had benefits but now Im totally exhausted and sick. Hopefully it will go away in a few days or sooner like last time. I want sure if it was the cacao but now I’m positive.

  11. I have been drinking raw cacao everyday for the last 3 to 4years and have always felt so good

  12. Kidney infection should be monitored closely because it can lead to a more serious damage tot the kidneys. ;’,“

    Warm regards

  13. well I’ve been drinking so far at least 30-40 gr of powdered cocoa every day for 4 months now! so far so good.. it certainly is addictive BUT all the psychoactive substances are worth it(at least for me)..only when I overdose with 50gr or more I feel exghausted after 4 hours and experience some nausea with vomitting tensions, maybe because my liver is overloaded or maybe because i feel dizzy cause of the rapid increase in neurotransmitters in my brain(dopamine,serotonin,norepinephrine,PEA..)(talking about an antidepressant bomp here..lol)
    but all the symptoms soon fade away by drinking lots of water and urinating a lot..the coolest part is that I trully enjoy sleeping during the night..

  14. Mizpah, you said: “It has been documented that native people traditionally didn’t use cacao as a food”

    This is false. The Kuna tribe eat a *lot* of cacao every single day (30 – 40 oz of a special cacao drink). Result? Hypertension is basically non-existent, and these people live very long lives. Cacao, as such, isn’t toxic. Context is everything. I think the rest of your diet and lifestyle play into whether or not you’re going to feel ill eating it.

    Of course, if you eat too much cacao, you might have a bad reaction to the theobromine – but it’s not a toxic substance. You just need to acclimate slowly over time to it (i.e. start slow, then increase cacao consumption). It’s strange to read someone argue against it or claim it’s not used much by native people. It is (by some), and it’s one of the best sources of magnesium (which is hard to get from food).

    Obviously, if you have pre-existing health/heart problems, this will factor into your decision to eat cacao.

  15. Hi David,

    Thanks for the information about the Kuna tribe. I agree that you may acclimate to theobromine but there is a limit to how much the body can take without adverse effects. But humans living in a natural environment would probably have the intuition and body knowledge to know what is an appropriate amount and when to stop.

    Unfortunately modern humans have lost this body awareness and most of us are hardwired to seek stimulation, which unfortunately can lead many people to overdo things like cacao and other caffeine-containing substances.

    I don’t agree that magnesium is hard to get from food however. All leafy greens are very rich in magnesium. Green smoothies and green juices would be an easy way to increase magnesium in the diet. And there are a variety of other sources as well.

  16. I tried raw cacao beans for the first time in my life.. yesterday, today.. yesterday i felt kind of like on drugs.. little unclear in my head. I was testing various beans CCN51 and ASS so it is hard to judge how much I ate, but guess not more than 5-6 pcs. in total.

    Today my acne has flared up, on my face. It is strange to get such a quick reaction? Today I tried 4pcs of ASS raw beans (CCN51 are a lot more acidic), so lets see how I will feel. For breakfast I cooked an oatmeal porridge, with ground aniseed for flavor and 1/2 lemon, no sugar or other ingredients. During the mean I ate those 4 raw beans, pealed. Now it is about 2 hours after finishing this breakfast. I feel ok, just an interesting “warm” feeling in the kidney area.

    Tomorrow I will have a break, hmmm for sure interesting with the acne1 I never have problems – as far as I do not use any sugar in food (no problem with fruits). Btw I also never drink coffee.

    Any other people with a similar experience so early on?

  17. The palpations and things are symptoms of an overdose in ammount and I think easy enough to adjust if you know the signs.
    I think everyone should remember, body type, size and metablolize will always effect the quantity of anything for any individual.
    If it helps I have heard 3 to 4 beans for about 100lbs of body weight, equal to about a tsp ofraw powder, in chocolate form up to 3-5 oz per day, by the sources below are mentioned
    Also critical is each persons unique biochemisrty, particularly their hormonal and brain chemistry, what effects one person due to some of the chemicals in cacao may never effect another the same due to that, like most things, so pay attention to modify ammounts accordingly or by how you react. Alot of the symptoms are from the biochemistry and to much of it can cause over excitation and then a crash according to research so in some ways that is a normal reaction to just to much. Also it contains little to no caffene and what is, is in the skin of the raw bean.
    Some examples here from survivalmonkey.com and a good google search will give you more on that one ..http://foodmatters.tv/articles-1/chocolate-can-be-good-for-you-at-the-right-dose has a good artical on how much.
    Anti-Depressant Properties of Cocoa and Healthy Dark Chocolate
    • Anandamide (a neurotransmitter known as “the bliss chemical”)
    • Arginine (nature’s aphrodisiac)
    • Dopamine (a neurotransmitter)
    • Epicatechins (antioxidants)
    • Magnesium (for healthy heart function)
    • Serotonin (anti-stress neurotransmitter)
    • Tryptophan (anti-depressant amino acid)
    • Phenylethylamine (PEA) (controls the ability to focus attention and stay alert)
    • Polyphenols (antioxidants)
    • Histamine
    • Tyramine
    • Salsolinol
    Magnesium – the Mineral Your Heart Needs

    Cocoa is a potent source of serotonin, dopamine, and phenylethylamine. These are three well-studied neurotransmitters which help alleviate depression and are associated with feelings of well-being.
    Cocoa contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO Inhibitors) which help improve our mood because they allow serotonin and dopamine to remain in the bloodstream longer without being broken down.
    Cocoa also contains anandamide which stimulates blissful feelings. Cocoa also contains B vitamins, which are associated with brain health.
    Caffeine in Cocoa and Chocolate
    It generally agreed that cocoa and chocolate are poor sources of caffeine, though estimates of how much caffeine is present in cocoa may differ, depending on the source of the opinion. (Note that cocoa made from cacao beans which had the surrounding membrane removed before processing will contain almost no caffeine.) Various researchers have made the following estimates of the caffeine content in cocoa and chocolate…
    • A cup of hot chocolate usually contains about 4 to 5 milligrams of caffeine, which is about 5% of the caffeine found in a cup of regular perked coffee. Some types of high-quality organic cocoa powder which have the outer membrane removed from the bean will contain almost no caffeine, for most of the caffeine is found in this membrane (which is usually ground up with the whole bean to make a cheaper form of cocoa powder).
    • A cup of coffee may contain 50 to 175 milligrams of caffeine, a cup of tea may contain 25 to 100 milligrams, and a cup of cocoa beverage may contain zero to 25 milligrams of caffeine.
    • A 1.4 ounce piece of chocolate (40 grams) contains about the same amount of caffeine as one cup of decaffeinated coffee.
    • 800 grams of milk chocolate (a lot of chocolate!) contains the equivalent amount of caffeine found in a cup of regular coffee.
    • A 50 gram piece of dark chocolate (the size of an average chocolate bar) will yield between 10 and 60 milligrams of caffeine; while an average 5-ounce cup of coffee can yield up to 175 milligrams of caffeine. (According to the Chocolate Information Center.)
    An interesting experiment in the medical field of Homeopathy showed that a decoction of ground, roasted cocoa beans in boiling water produced an excitement of the nervous system similar to that caused by black coffee, and an excited state of circulation, demonstrated by an accelerated pulse. . Yet when the same decoction was made with unroasted cocoa beans, neither effect was noticeable. 9 i have heard that from several sources the roasting changes its effect).

    So How Much Cacao Should We Consume?
    http://rawfoodsolution.com/is-raw-cacao-toxic-1151.html
    According to David Wolfe in his book, Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future, a low intake of cacao would account to 3-4 cacao beans for each 100 pounds of body weight. If you are a small person like me then this is really not a lot of cacao and would equate to maybe a teaspoon of powdered cacao a day at the most.
    Wolfe states that an excessive intake of cacao would be between 11 and 33 cacao beans per 100 pounds of body weight. For someone who weighs 200 pounds this would be anywhere between roughly ½ tablespoon to 3 tablespoons a day – and much less for lighter individuals.
    My general advice would be to limit your intake, avoid daily use and to avoid cacao completely if you are showing signs of adrenal exhaustion, chronic fatigue or heart rhythm abnormalities.
    How Much Chocolate Should You Eat and How Often? http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/08/26/no-sugar-chocolates.aspx
    There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to dosing yourself with chocolate. But here are some basic guidelines.
    In general, it seems preferable to consume smaller amounts of chocolate at more frequent intervals, much like the principle of split dosing for supplements, in order to ensure a steadier stream of nutrients in your bloodstream. According to Dr. Golomb, studies show people eating chocolate more than five times per week have a lower body mass index. That said, if you eat chocolate 20 times a day, you’re going to have a problem due to the sheer quantity you’re consuming! Daily consumption in divided doses (two to three times per day) is probably beneficial, as long as you aren’t going overboard in quantity, and as long as you’re eating high quality chocolate.
    According to Ori Hofmekler, in order to fully benefit from chocolate, you’d have to consume about 3.5 to 7 ounces per day.
    So that is some idea on what might be called the medicinal aspects I have found both studies and research available on.
    So try and remember how uniquely wonderful you are when deciding on how or if to use anything in your environment and/or you ingest or use. good things often are not good for you in the wrong ammounts. and for me, with chocolate, the beans are easier to not over eat.. that made from the raw organic cacao/ chocolate I get (homemade) is so fabulous it is hard not to eat to much just having a good taste. OMG to die for, but a few good nights like some of yours and you realize.. moderation is paramount for the health and nutritional bennifits. Many things are of benefits only by regular use in your diet, that doesn’t mean or exclude everyday for chocolate/cacao, one reputable article covered documented benefits from a few times a week. So think about it and think about you. Anything with good benefits still may require some trial and error to find the balance (ammount for your type and biochemistry) and consider the kind may be it too. Otherwize Zippy .. crashes and can’t wait to feel good again. I think getting the feel good can be done without the crash… when you discover the sweet spot for your own metabolism with chocolate/cacao. Marsha

  18. Also Cacao has naturally occuring Nitric Oxide that decrease blood pressure and can cause some of the same symptoms mentioned in this article about supplements. Rememember some of us have low blood pressure and other biochemial differiences that may change tolerances due to effects. So many benifical effects due to a variety of components not all attributed to the theobromine. as noted in this atricle on the isolated supplement.

    Blood Pressure Changes
    Because nitric oxide affects blood vessels, a decrease in blood pressure is a potential side effect, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms associated with low blood pressure include headache, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting and loss of balance. These symptoms may be worse when standing from a sitting position or when urinating. Discontinue use and consult your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms.

    Read more: http://www.livestrong.com/article/75268-side-effects-nitric-oxide-supplements/#ixzz2Ty4Yuo2R

  19. I will give information that will help certain people. There is raw cocoa and, there is raw cocoa.. What does that mean ? Very concrete info paradoxically. Lots of raw biologic cacao is kinda “bleached” with the dutch process. So you go to the store you read biologic cocoa you buy it and you end up getting something that is devoid of most of its antioxydants. Dutch process (to alkalize) removes as much as 60% to 90% of all the antioxidants from the cocoa from a study. In the wiki article that pointed to the study they said antioxidants were not yet proven to be good for health..
    The dutch process alkalize and make it less bitter and when you study herbalism you can see the expert are looking for the bitterness for health benefit.. Wow. Cocoa that did not go through dutch process is lighter brown in color. Dutch process makes it darker brown. You can tell the difference in color. Again… WOW. Personnal graphical opinion ahead.. I was used to eat biologic unprocessed cocoa (I felt it helped my computer programming skill) when I got some dutch cocoa I thought I was eating shit. I spat it out and understood it was dutch processed after some google search and found the negative study I just mentionned. You can do your own reaserch you should find the same kind of info.

  20. Cacao is fine, the problem likely lies in the Lead present in the cacao of various cacao products, of which we now have proof of contamination of cacao products, and not in the beans themselves. Actually this has been known about for quite some time. And recently a few consumer labs have verified the presence of various heavy metals in many cacao products. This likely explains why symptoms of increased heart rate appear, which is the symptom from the natural theobromine present in cacao, which is perfectly natural and tolerable as long as you dont “overdose”. Some people may prefer to take a little too much to use cacao as an entheogen. However, if the cacao has too much lead, an amount which changes from batch to batch, then you will start to notice the dangerous symptoms, which will be particularly scary, and you will know that something is wrong. In many cases the heart palpitations will go on for days, this is the result of the heavy metals in cacao products that have not found a better way to process their cacao. Some producers are showing much less heavy metal present than others, proving the old suspicion that the processing was the culprit, and not the cacao bean itself.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1281312/

    http://www.naturalnews.com/044139_lead_exposure_heart_rhythm_changes_cardiovascular_health.html

    http://labs.naturalnews.com/heavy-metals-chart-Superfoods-Cacao.html

    • In my case the tachycardia is definitely a result of sensitivity to stimulants. I also have a low tolerance for caffeine and very strongly react to ephedrine. In people who are susceptible a high dose of cacao can cause a similar reaction as in caffeine sensitivity.

      I can tolerate small amounts of cacao but high doses are way too stimulating. It also produces insomnia. This is not to say that lead is not involved but probably not a primary factor for me and others with these types of sensitivity.

      I’ve also noticed that raw cacao is more likely to produce this effect. I feel that the traditional way of processing cacao by fermentation probably alters the chemistry in a way that makes it easier on the body.

      The NCBI article refers only to cocoa produced in Nigeria. It would be interesting to see if this occurs worldwide. Obviously further research is necessary.

      I couldn’t find any actual data about lead on the Natural News page.

  21. The beans are a separate thing than the powder of cacao. Powder may contain several sources of contamination. I repeat this study.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1281312/

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