Saturday, 17 December 2011

Exploring the Hype - Raw Chocolate and Argan Oil

Being in the natural health industry, I am frequently confronted by the testimonies extolling the virtues of the latest miracle food, miracle beauty treatment, miracle ingredient or simply a 'miracle'! Recently, I have been exploring the hype behind 2 such 'miracle' products or rather the ingredients in them, their sources, manufacturing processes and health claims. One of them is raw chocolate and the other is argan oil. My default setting is to always examine the science behind such claims and to represent a balanced viewpoint which may not always be popular but I do believe that enabling informed choices is always the preferred option compared to contributing to a marketing frenzy based on the minset of the gullible. Of course, there is no accounting for stupidity which is precisely what markeing campaigns are geared to operate on.
Raw Chocolate Raw chocolate first made an appearance in Europe only very recently (some original pioneers of the raw food movement first introduced raw chocolate to the UK as recently as 2003) and although chocolate per se has been in existence as part of the Mayan and Aztec cultures since time began (200BC), it was only ever consumed in its cooked form. It was often given as a hot drink to soldiers on their way to war. So the Mayans and Aztecs would have known about chocolate's unique powers and health benefits even then.
The refined and cooked chocolate that we have come to know and love as confectionery is made from the cacao (cocoa) bean of the Theobroma cacao tree. Its highly processed nature (it is heated to above 130 degrees celcius) and the addition of ingredients such as milk, cocoa solids, cocoa butter, hydrogenated fats, preservatives and refined sugar make it highly desirable in taste but incredibly addictive and unhealthy if consumed in large quantities. However, raw chocolate is not subject to such processing (the cocoa bean is never heated to above 45 degrees celcius) and the only ingredients added are natural sweetners (which invariably come from fruits such as goji berries, acai, red and black berries or agave syrup), natural fats (cocoa or coconut butter, natural essential oils) and nuts for flavourings. These ingredients are added to counteract the bitter taste of raw chocolate but despite 'smoothing over the rough edges' of raw chocolate's taste, some still subscribe to the notion of it being a 'acquired taste' due to its bitter flavour!
Health Claims So what of the claims made of the health benefits of raw chocolate? Well, there is a wealth of scientific evidence on some of the health benefits associated with cooked chocolate especially dark chocolate. These include conferring protection against heart disease, cancer-fighting properties, combatting depression, generating a feeling of well-being and aphrodisiac properties. Given that cooked chocolate has a fraction of the nutritional ingredients of raw chocolate, it would be reasonable to expect raw chocolate to confer the same health benefits except in a more powerful manner. Comparative data shows that raw chocolate still retains its active consituents intact including important antioxidants & flavonoids, enzymes and minerals such as iron, zinc, copper, calcium and magnesium. Interestingly, it also contains fibre which cooked chocolate does not. Moreover, the addition of 'superfood' fruits such as goji berries and acai berries provides vitamins such as C, A, B, D and a host of other antioxidants. Over 300 nutrients have now been identified in raw chocolate. Of the other chemicals, there is tryptophan (a natural chemical that is involved in antidepressant properties being a precursor to serotonin), other neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and anandamide, theobromine (a bronchodilator and blood vessel dilator) and polyethylamine or PEA which has been given the dubious honour of being labelled the 'love molecule' (some studies have reported its association with a feeling of being in love along with anandamide (which comes from the sanskrit word 'ananda' meaning extreme delight or bliss). Anandamide also has a chemical structure similar to that of tetrohydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis so PEA and anandamide in combination may account for the euphoric state experienced when being in love. Raw chocolate is reputed to be an aphrodisiac but there is very little scientific evidence to support this at present.
Ethical Trade The raw food movement has generated much discussion over ethical trade and energy consumption in the manufacturing process. The former is more controversial than the latter as the making of raw chocolate at low heat does not lend itself to high energy usage so little can be argued over this. The packaging and labels used is also very minimal and from recycled sources. With regards to ethical trade, all of the raw chocolate companies are supposedly working with South American cooperatives, mostly in Peru and Equador which are part of the fairtrade organisations such as the Fair Trade Federation. It remains to be seen how much of the actual profits go to the indigenous populations that serve and support our desire for this 'new' miracle food.
A Miracle Food? Whilst raw chocolate has many benefits, one needs to exercise caution when buying into the health claims. Though it may be a healthier substitute for cooked chocolate, one must not forget that the caffeine content, theobromine and other ingredients exert physiological effects in the body. Caffeine for instance is a powerful stimulant and some can be sensitive to this ingredient so too much of it is never good. My advice as always, is moderation with the old adage: a little of what you fancy does you good!
Argan Oil This new 'miracle' product has many uses: medicinal/ health, culinary and cosmetic. Argan oil has been touted as a panacea of all ails and the answer to long life, vitality and vibrant skin health. But what is the real deal?
Argan oil has a long tradition of use in the Berber tribe of Morocco who extract the oil from the seed of the fruit of of the evergreen Argan tree (Argania spinosa) also known as the Moroccon Ironwood or more popularly, the Tree of Life for its many properties and uses.. Its life span is said to be anywhere between 125 to 450 years and the tree may not come into full production until it is at least 40-60 years old. The tree grows mainly in the southwestern regions of Morocco (and found sparsely in Algeria and Israel) but due to its popularity in the West, the oil from this tree has become almost synonymous with Morocco. So what is so special about Argan oil? There are essentially 3 categories for which argan oil is sought after for:
1. medicinal (internal use)
2. culinary (internal use)
3. cosmetic (external use)
Medicinal & Health Benefits The unique and powerful health benefits of argan oil has given rise to it being labelled as 'liquid gold'. Analysis of the oil has shown that it contains twice as much essential fatty acids (EFA) than olive oil as well as containing other key nutrients such as Vitamin E, polyphenols, antioxidants, carotenoids and plant sterols. Because of this, it is easy to see the appeal regarding health benefits: it will lower cholesterol (probably by promoting the 'good' cholesterol or HDL cholesterol in relation to the 'bad' cholesterol or LDL cholesterol), therefore it promotes heart health. It also promotes liver health, blood circulation, immunity, prevents cancer (antioxidant properties), alleviates arthritis and rheumatism (probably due to its high EFA content), it is anti-imflammatory (involved in endogenous pain-relieveing pathways probably due to prostaglandin production), alleviates dry skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis and relieves the pain and skin symptoms of chicken pox.
Culinary Uses The culinary uses of argan oil is really based on its EFA content in addition to the other key ingredients which confer numerous health properties. It can used as a cooking oil without degrading the chemical configuration of the oils, as a salad dressing (it has a very pleasant and nutty flavour), or as a dip for bread using the paste traditionally made from the residues of the kernels after oil extraction. This 'amlou paste' is sweeetened with honey and served as a bread dip for breakfast.
Cosmetic Uses The appeal really comes from the fact that argan oil contain superior quantities of vitamin E, a key nutrient for the skin. Traditionally, the Berber people use argan oil to nourish and beautify the skin, hair and nails, make handmade soaps and cosmetics. More recently, the big cosmetics companies have started advertising the benefits of their product by dint of them containing argan oil (usually skin creams and moisturisers by way of preventing wrinkles)... always a bestseller for the vain and suggestible!

Other Uses The reason that the argan tree is often referred to by the Berber people as the 'tree of life' is simply bacause it serves numerous other useful purposes for the sustenance and their community. For instance, the tree itself is felled for timber (provides basic building material and for furniture making), as firewood (heat for cooking), ornamental (decorative boxes and handmade crafts for the tourists), charcoal (heat for cooking) and animal fodder (food for their livestock: goats, camels and sheep).
Production, Manufacturing & Quality Traditionally, the Berber tribespeople (women actually) used to crack the kernels of the fruits and extract the oil by hand. No solvent or heat is used so this is truly an authentic organic, cold-pressed oil of high quality. Recently however, due to the high demand for this oil combined with commercial interest has meant that this process has been largely replaced by mechanical presses which considerably reduces the time it takes for extraction, allowing the argan oil business to grow into a viable business option for the Berber tribe. Since no water is added to press the dough, the oil has a much longer shelf-life, of up to 2 years than the hand-made product. However, given that the product may linger in storage (conditions of which are not known), there is a risk of oxidation which is subject to spoilage and degradation of the oil. No quality control of this process (as far as I know) has been carried out to date.
Ethical Trade or Exploitation? Nothing annoys me more than needless exploitation of poorer communities by richer economies and global corporations. Very little is stated about this now but it will be only a matter of time before a traditional custom and the livelihoods of age-long tribes and cultural practices become completely globalised and dominated by commercially-driven companies. I refer to the mass production and exporting of argan oil; a product traditionally produced by the Berber tribe of Morocco serving a myriad of functions for the local community. Due to the overwhelming demand for argan oil, the Argan tree was been added to the world heritage list in 1999 by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) in order to protect it from encroaching desertification. The oil came to the attention of the outside world in the 1990s and is now highly sought after for the benefits it presents. But it is has been an important resource for the Berber people for centuries and hopefully will continue to be so. As demand for argan oil has grown since the beginning of the boom (around 1999), there was a drive to ensure a fair and honest trade that not only benefitted the Berber tribe but also made this a commercially feasible and responsible business to meet the demands of interest of the outside world (actually, Western Europe and more recently, the US). By preserving the forests where the argan tree grows, ensuring the best deal for the Berber people, the Moroccon government, UNESCO and the German Government Development Agency (GTZ) are committed to limit the commercial exploitation of the Berber tribe (by the Swiss and French entrepreneurs) and preserve ecological areas dedicated to the growth and sustainability of the Argan trees. Without fail, with continued demand for this oil, it is only a matter of time before the world is devoid of this wonderful plant species that has served the local people for centuries.
For more information about raw chocolate visit for resources, recipes and information about raw foods.
For more information about Argan Oil and its trade please visit the Argan Oil Society
For purchasing products of ethical trade try Wild Wood Groves ( or Evolve Beauty (