Raw Cacao Side Effects and Benefits

Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
raw cacao and pod

Though very little research has been done to prove the point, many people -especially in the raw food world- believe raw cacao side effects can be extreme. According to raw cacao's opponents, the substance is harmfully addictive and can cause a variety of negative health effects. Proponents, on the other hand, say the benefits are many.

Raw Cacao

Raw cacao is really just the beans of the cacao tree, which grows indigenously in areas with a rainforest climate. Chocolate is the most popular and well-known byproduct of the cacao plant and is made by combining the beans with milk, sugar, and other ingredients that tone down the beans' strong, characteristically bitter taste.

Consuming the raw beans is somewhat controversial, with some touting the benefits and others pointing out detriments.

Side Effects

Below are just a few of the theories circulating about the negative side effects of this raw food. Be aware that no solid scientific evidence exists to substantiate or debunk any of the claims, so if you are worried about the effects of raw cacao in your diet, it's a good idea to discuss your concerns with a medical or nutritional professional. He or she may have access to additional research or information that is helpful to share.

  • Cacao may be an extremely addictive substance. Some have suggested cacao may be one of the most addictive substances on Earth.
  • Much like coffee, raw cacao acts as a stimulant, which at the least can negatively affect sleep and at worst may agitate kidneys.
  • Some believe regular, long-term consumption of raw cacao may lead to a variety of health conditions such as depression, mood swings, nightmares, and paranoia.
  • In high doses, cacao may act as a hallucinogen.
  • Frequent consumption may cause a toxic buildup in the liver and in the blood over time.

You can hear more about side effects of raw cacao in this video interview with Jeremy Saffron, one of the first to talk--possibly the first--about raw cacao in the raw food community:

Other Points

Here are a few additional points raw cacao opposers claim:

  • In general, animals will not consume cacao unless lured with the addition of milk and added sugar.
  • Groups native to the areas in which cacao grows have historically only used the cacao beans in rituals or for medicinal purposes.
  • Natives typically consume only the fruit of the plant, which offers the same benefits as that of the beans but has few harmful side effects.

Benefits of Raw Cacao

Below are just a few examples of the purported benefits of raw cacao beans.

  • It is naturally sugar-free. Unlike the chocolate you'd buy in the baking aisle of your grocery store, raw cacao naturally contains no sugar.
  • In its raw form, it's unlikely to cause allergic reactions. Most individuals who have difficulty consuming chocolate actually have issues with dairy products or chemicals used in the making of chocolate. Cacao rarely causes allergic reactions.
  • It's very flexible. The raw seed can be consumed as a food, of course, but it can also be made into a plethora of other healthy goods, such as oils and butters to treat skin conditions and to beautify the skin.
  • Cacao is a natural aphrodisiac. Many people discuss chocolate's ability to act as an aphrodisiac, but it's actually the chemicals in the raw bean that stimulate the senses and heighten feelings of joy and pleasure. Mercola.com lists it as one of the top aphrodisiacs, attributing its power to the "bliss molecule," anandamide, and phenylethylamine, "the love chemical," which makes the brain release dopamine during sex.
  • It is packed with powerful antioxidants. According to Survival Monkey, unprocessed, raw cacao has an ORAC score of 28,000. Dark chocolate (with an ORAC score of 13,120) has been regaled for its antioxidant content, but raw cacao contains even more health benefits. Antioxidants purportedly lower blood pressure and have a protective effect against many diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
  • It may satisfy female cravings. During a woman's menstrual cycle, she may crave chocolate. The scientific community has yet to tack on an official reason as to why, but many people believe it is because chocolate, or rather the cacao from which it comes, naturally contains magnesium, which women may need during their cycles.
  • It contains important essential fats. Though the word fat has taken on a highly negative connotation when it comes to health, fat is actually required in a healthy diet. Most people now know that salmon and olive oil contain a healthy dose of "good fats," but did you know that cacao is another great way to get heart-healthy fats into your diet?

Conflicting Findings

If you pay attention to the media and news websites, you may feel torn about whether raw cacao and chocolate are harmful, toxic foods or good-for-you superfoods. The same characteristics some experts call benefits, such as the powerful ability of cacao to alter the mood in a positive way, are also the same attributes other experts label as harmful, as in the article on raw foods author Frederic Patenaude's site, where mood swings and rapid heart rate are listed as reasons not to consume raw cacao. It's easy to get swept up in the controversy.

Should You Consume Raw Cacao?

Since the opinions and research vary so drastically, consult with your doctor before introducing raw cacao to your diet. Not only will the doctor potentially have access to the latest research, he'll also be able to take a look at your personal health history to see if there is any additional reason you should or should not consume the food.

Raw Cacao Side Effects and Benefits