The Great Cocoa Debate

This repost is a fun little insight as to how some of our Whole30 rules came about. 

Last week, Whole9 reader Chris posed what appeared to be a relatively innocuous question about our Whole30 program.  Chris wrote, “Is 100% pure cocoa okay?”

This simple yes-or-no request prompted a 17 hour heated debate within the Whole9 household.  We battled, we point-and-counterpointed, we took time outs so we could cool off enough to continue the discussion.  And while this actually isn’t a big deal issue for us – certainly not one worthy of an entire blog post – Dallas hates to lose, and I love to argue.  Which means this debate could rage on for months while poor Chris stands poised with a spoon full of cocoa powder over his steaming cup of coffee, pleading, “Just TELL ME, people.”

So today, we thought we’d share our points of view here with our readers, and ask you to weigh in on the issue.  Just for fun.  (And the smug and shameless joy that comes with winning an argument.)  So read, share your thoughts, and then we’ll announce the final decision at which we arrived, as an addendum to this post.  Just hang in there, Chris.

Melissa’s Position:

It’s true that 100% cocoa is not the same as commercially processed chocolate.  It’s natural, unsweetened, may have some negligible health benefits (which plays no part in my thought process, but I’m sure Dallas will mention it below) and technically meets all the criteria of a Whole30-approved food.  But making a technically perfect food choice isn’t the whole story of a Whole30, and we’re not about to let something with potentially significant mental and emotional down sides slide in on a technicality.  And certainly not something that misses the bus as much as a CHOCOLATE substitute.

While 100% cocoa sure isn’t sweet in flavor, it’s chocolate-y enough that many will see it, use it and abuse it as a pseudo-chocolate crutch.  You know who you are –  the carb-addicted sugar-a-holics,  missing your beloved chocolate while on the Whole30.  And while you are here to change your habits, change your cravings and change your relationship with food… you are also desperate enough to get your fix by rationalizing the addition of “Whole30-approved” cocoa powder to your coffee, coconut milk and anything else that could act as a Pseudo-Chocolate Delivery Mechanism.

And that goes against everything the Whole30 stands for.

So while I have no issues with the technical properties of the food itself, I’m not okay with allowing a functioning chocolate substitute like 100% pure cocoa into our Whole30 program.  It’s not just about the food choices, it’s about breaking patterns, habits and cravings, and 100% pure cocoa is simply not contributing to that particular cause.

Dallas’ Position:

While I’m certainly not a proponent of including foods in our Whole30 program that are “iffy”, I believe that our rationale for including or excluding foods for our Whole30 program should be consistent and rational. In my opinion, 100% unsweetened cocoa (which, by the way, isn’t all that much fun to eat all by itself) is much like, say, cinnamon. It can be used to provide flavor to many delicious dishes, many of which are clearly not Good Food, but in and of itself is a innocent enough plant product.

We talk a lot about being aware of why we make the food choices we do, and that exorcising your Sugar Demon is a major goal of the Whole30.  As one example, we caution people not to overeat fruit during the Whole30, since fruit does contain sugar (and is often very sweet-tasting).  We make the point that substituting fruit for a handful of candy is not achieving the goal of freeing yourself (and your brain!) from the powerful bonds of sugar addiction. But just because fruit contains sugar doesn’t mean we categorically exclude it – only that we encourage you to be careful and thoughtful about your fruit consumption.

Melissa says the rich, intense chocolate-y flavor of 100% cocoa could be reminiscent of your (old) favorite chocolate bar.  But using cinnamon in my PWO sweet potato could remind me of the glorious taste of a Cinnabon roll… and yet cinnamon gets two thumbs up from the Whole9! It’s not just about whether cocoa can be made into something that doesn’t even remotely resemble health food – it’s about carefully considering why you are choosing to eat it. If you’re still in the midst of your Whole9 Chocoholic Rehab Program, then steer clear (just like I’d tell those of you who are still in serious sugar withdrawal to pass on dried fruit initially). If, like me, you are in complete control of your Sugar Demons, then cocoa is nothing more than a spice, added to improve the flavour of your dishes.  Let’s not scapegoat the Theobroma cacao, people.  There are no direct down sides of 100% pure cocoa, and therefore it should be allowable by Whole30 standards.

Your Turn:

Post thoughts to comments!

The Verdict

We decided that 100% cocoa (or cacao) is acceptable on the Whole30. You’re welcome.

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    • Christy says

      While I agree with Melissa about breaking food addictions, I am going to side with Dallas on raw organic cacao powder. I plan to mash up a fourth of a banana and mix it with a tablespoon of raw organic cacao and a touch of coconut oil for an occasional treat. Cacao is a healing superfood. It is full of antioxidants, flavanols, iron, magnesium and calcium. It is also a natural mood elevator and antidepressant. These are all positive things.

  1. Eryn says

    Gah! For some reason I just assumed this would be ok. I’m on day 24 and a week or so ago I had an emergency Larabar (I’ve only had 2 so far, so I don’t think I’m leaning on them really) with 100% unsweetned cocoa powder, dates and coconut in it. As I started reading this article I was thinking I might have to restart… Grateful for the verdict but I totally understand Melissa’s points as well!

  2. Connie says

    It sounds like Melissa is saying that anything you like too much is a crutch and therefore should be excluded. This is an emotional appeal and I wonder if it is worthy of serious consideration. For example, if I’m Jonesing after organic leafy greens because they remind me of my old Big Mac obsession should I exclude those too. Shouldn’t my leafy greens stand on their own merit or dis-merit?

  3. Emily says

    These are both valid points, and this is a subject I’m very interested in as I have struggled with ‘addictive cacao consumption’.

    Cacao is a stimulant, which is addictive in itself; and it also contains a fair bit of tryptophan and serotonin, which are known for their mood enhancing, ‘feel good’ properties. Not that there’s anything wrong with feeling good! But trust me, it is possible to become dependant on cacao for a feel good fix, and this is not a healthy psychological response to food if you ask me…

    I think it’s really up to the individual. If you have no emotional investment in consuming cacao, and are using it to give a bit of extra flavour to a dish, that’s one thing. But if, like me, it has become a crutch and you are using it as a coping mechanism, then that’s different.

    So, that’s why I personally choose to leave it out of my Whole30.

    • says

      You could say the same about caffeine in any shape or form, tea, coffee, even some foods that contain caffeine. The addiction you are trying to break is to food, not necessarily to components of food. An addictive personality will latch on to anything that is remotely addicting. That said, the whole SWYPO initiative would dictate cacao is bad, personally I agree with the cinnamon parallel, just don’t abuse it like you might coffee…

  4. Gabriele says

    I think, for most people, it should probably be left out of the whole 30. But, it does depend on what part of your journey you are on. I’m doing my first whole 30 now, but have been gluten and dairy free for over 2 years and have been part of the paleo community for over a year. I have a healthy relationship with food, so I feel for me, it is ok as a flavor enhancement as cinnamon. The only thing whole 30 changes in my diet, is no added sweeteners like honey or maple syrup, and nothing with added sugar. And, I gave up my flavored hazelnut coffee, because it says “artificial” on it. I also, had to start making my own almond milk because of the carrageenan. Every thing else, on Whole 30, has been my lifestyle, and will remain that way after the 30 days. I’m sure I will keep some of the good habits from whole 30 too.

    • Cliff says

      Whole Foods 365 brand Organic Almondmilk Unsweetened is pretty good if you can find it. There’s no carrageenan.

  5. Cliff says

    I know people who only eat for sustenance and don’t enjoy most foods that much. Perhaps something like the Whole30 diet would be easier for them for that reason. But I love most foods. There are very few foods of any sort that I don’t like and so I had an immensely varied diet. But even though I was focusing on what the establishment termed healthy foods, I still developed chronic problems. I don’t think I was addicted to anything in particular so I haven’t had trouble eliminating specific foods, but now my diet is comparatively boring, even while preparing meals in a gourmet fashion as I usually have. So anytime I can add another food that’s even somewhat healthy and not detrimental I’m thankful for it. It simply allows for a more varied and interesting diet. I’m a foodie. Plus I’ve found an organic, affordable, non-alkalized cocoa that has less than 1 gram of carbs per tablespoon. I’m thankful that I can add this to my diet for variety.

    • says

      Cliff, I’m glad we were able to help you make your new diet more exciting! I also consider myself a foodie, and by experimenting with different cuts of meat and offal, fancy dressings and sauces (like clarified butters and flavored balsamics and vinegars), and more exotic spices and spice mixtures, I’m able to feel like I’m eating exciting, always fresh, super-foodie-friendly meals while sticking to my Whole30-ish daily regimen. Melissa

  6. Chelan Zirul says

    #teamMelissa … you had me at “making a technically perfect food choice isn’t the whole story of a Whole30″

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  8. Athena S says

    Well Fed includes a recipe for “Chocolate Chili” which calls for 1 1/2 T. of unsweetened cocoa so I feel like the ship has sailed on this decision.

    I agree with Dallas.

    • Athena S says

      Oops. Should have had my coffee before I replied. I just noticed this is an old debate, so yes, the ship did sail, with your verdict aboard :)

  9. Rieland says

    #teamDallas. You had me at “cocoa is nothing more than a spice, added to improve the flavour of your dishes.”

  10. Sheri says

    I am glad for the final verdict, since I often use cocoa in combination with other spices to flavor savory foods, like grilled chicken breast or chili or even roasted cauliflower. But I think the application is important. If I put roasted hazelnuts, dates and cocoa powder in a vitamix, I would have something that approximated Nutella and would be Whole30 compliant *technically* but it wouldn’t be in the spirit of the program, especially if I found myself eating it out of a jar with a spoon. Not that I have any direct experience with this… ;)

  11. jennifer says

    I think you both make good points, and it just depends on where you are in your journey of eating and living healthier. In the big picture, I’m not so sure this one item is that important either way. What is important, is that that our every waking moment is not consumed with this kind of debate. There are so many more important things in life that need our attention and thoughts. Perfection does not exist in the way we eat or with anything else in life. Striving for absolute perfection sets us up for failure, guilt and disappointment. Finding a balance , you will find peace

  12. Kristin says

    I definitely love both points. During my first couple of Whole30s in 2013, I thougth of ways to use cocoa as a substitute for a sugary chocolate fix. I naturally realized that wasn’t the point of the Whole30, so like Sheri and others have commented, I reserved the use of cocoa for chili, steak or pork rubs, and cauliflower. I have way more control this year and am turned off pretty quickly by things that are too sweet (it’s working!), but as a precaution since it’s also been a more stressful year, I still stick by my own rule and leave the cocoa for savory dishes when I’m on the program.

  13. Doug English says

    Pure cacao powder without sugar, honey etc is totally good: very high ORAC value (antioxidants) beneficial minerals including magnesium, good protein and fat content. I often use it as a nightcap: 1 to 2 heaped tea spoons, hot water and top up with milk (another debate but I get fresh milk and it is nutritionally
    good when compared with all the manufactured pseudo-milks)

  14. Kim Shannon says

    I am confused about the argument since I just made the steak rub from It Starts With Food and the recipe contains cocoa powder. I just assumed a recipe from the book would be Whole30 compliant. It’s delicious, by the way. :)

    • Matthew says

      Yes, I was just checking out the Chapul “Aztec Cricket Bars” that are Whole30 endorsed and they contain cocoa. I’m excited to try them because of the crickets, not the cocoa, and I’m glad they are going to be ok when I start my 30 days on Monday!

  15. tj says

    I only want to use it as a spice in a chili recipe, so I side with Dallas. It’s not always about a chocolate addiction.

  16. Stephanie says

    When referring to cocoa powder, should I be using 100% raw cacao powder or do you really mean cocoa powder? I am making Well Fed’s chocolate chili and am not sure which is the correct one to use? Please advise.

  17. Stephanie says

    The fact that the “rules” change on the whims of two people makes my decision to end my “journey” & never ever do it again valid and smart. Except for a little weight loss all I got out of this so called challenge was dry skin, brittle nails, fatigue, irritability, and higher cholesterol.

  18. Maggie says

    Sooo… what was the verdict on adding unsweetened cocoa powder to black coffee? The “cocoa is okay” decision seems to be focused entirely on cocoa not being inherently bad and being useful in savory dishes. What about the unsweet cocoa coffee?

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