chocolate: friend or foe?

Dear GreenSmoothieGirl: Is chocolate actually good for me? Will you do a good/better/best on all the carob and chocolate options? I’m craving chocolate after having a baby and want to know what’s best.

Answer: It’s a confusing subject because so many products have been made from cacao, the seed of the fruit, the whole food, that is the source for “chocolate.” (Most processed chocolate products manufactured by candy companies have precious little cacao in them, if any–they are often chocolate-FLAVORED products.)

Chocolate has been given a lot of attention lately because of some of its nutritional properties. It’s tempting to WANT to see it as a cure-all. Why?

Because it has compounds in it that make us (myself included) crave it. In fact, just writing this, I had to take a break to find chocolate, because I was daydreaming about it. There’s a built-in desire to call chocolate a health food.

No, I’m not about to tell you to avoid chocolate. (Whew!) Unprocessed dark chocolate is a very complex food with hundreds of chemical compounds, many of which are very beneficial nutritionally.

Those who market it tout its ORAC score (a cumulative antioxidant score) of over 13,000, higher than virtually any other food, even green tea and acai berries. Dark chocolate contains heart-healthy, cancer-preventing nutrients linked to helpful blood thinning, protection against diabetes, mental alertness, even weight loss. It’s high in minerals as well.

(A caveat, however: those same nutrients can be found in other, lower calorie and lower fat, raw plant foods that cost less than $1/lb. And along with the healthy dark chocolate usually comes lots of fat and sugar, and usually quite a bit of processing that loses some of the health benefits.)

If you do eat chocolate, find cacao content at 60% or above. If you’re accustomed to processed “chocolate,” you may barely recognize the dark, bitter, earthy taste of the whole food.

Cacao is the seed of the fruit, the whole food, that chocolate comes from (before it is typically and often processed to a nearly unrecognizable form). Cacao is also called cocoa beans or nuts or seeds. Dried cocoa beans are called cocoa nibs.

A very aggressive network marketing company sells little daily bites of chocolate–not organic, not raw, but high in cacao and sweetened fairly naturally–that calculate to be about $60/lb.

That is correct, $60/lb. And they’re selling it by the UPS truckload–even though superior products cost 1/6th that amount in retail outlets. The only good thing I have to say about that is that they’re feeding you about the right amount, daily: a small nugget of dark chocolate. These products are still very high in fat and some type of concentrated sweetener, so more is not better.

And if you’re eating lots of expensive dark chocolate and can’t afford a whole-foods pantry, please re-evaluate your spending decisions.

If you’re going to eat chocolate, preferably eat organic, fair traded, high cacao-content (60% or higher), naturally sweetened (agave, maple syrup, stevia, etc. rather than cane sugar). I do not really believe any labeling of chocolate products as “raw.”

First, there has to be some processing; and second, since virtually all chocolate is coming out of third-world countries, policing that is difficult at best and impossible at worst. (Same issue we’ve been discussing with agave.)

Carob is a chocolate “wannabe” that does not stimulate the dopamine receptors in the brain like chocolate does. It doesn’t contain natural stimulants theobromine and caffeine like chocolate does, which may cause people to feel unwell. If you like the flavor of carob, that’s possibly your “best” option in the good/better/best analysis below.

But most people seek chocolate for a reason: it has the feel-good amino acid tryptophan which makes the brain transmitter serotonin that depressed people lack. In short, chocolate makes us happy.

So here it is:

Good: dark chocolate, naturally sweetened (no HFCS or other refined sugars)

Better: Dark chocolate (60% cacao or better, 80% if that’s not too dark for you). Free traded, organic, naturally sweetened bars are about $10-15/lb. at health food stores. Or make your own recipes using non-alkalized, unsweetened cocoa powder.

Best: make your own recipes (Ch. 11 of 12 Steps to Whole Foods, or other raw-food recipes) with raw cacao nibs.

Use sweeteners like stevia, maple syrup, raw agave. Use virgin coconut oil or avocadoes for the fat. Or skip chocolate altogether and use CAROB if you like the taste of it better.

In terms of the products you can purchase, the ORAC scores tell us this:

Good: non-alkalized (non-Dutched) unsweetened cocoa powder

Better: Dark chocolate, roasted cacao powder

Best: Raw cacao powder or raw cacao nibs

processed meat: it’s on my “never” list

If you’ve read my books, you know there are two foods I never eat and I don’t let my kids eat either. We are virtually 100% about good nutrition at home, but at a party or in a restaurant, we make good choices but aren’t perfect.

The two “over my dead body” foods, though:

One, processed meat. (Bacon, sausage, hot dogs, salami, deli/luncheon meat.) Two, soft drinks.

Here’s a meta-study (my favorite kind–a review of lots of different research studies, in this case almost 1,600 pieces of research) showing how damaging processed meat is to our health:

http://health.yahoo.com/news/reuters/us_heart_meat.html

Nearly 20 years ago, I read a study examining childhood cancers. Kids who developed cancer had no risk factors in common except a prevalance of high (11 or more monthly) hot dog consumption. I have no idea why I remember that–11 hot dogs a month–but I do. Then my best friend worked for Bain & Co., out of college, and one of her clients was a meat-packing plant. After working inside that business, she said to me, “Promise me that you and any offspring you have will never eat a hot dog. You would not believe how disgusting all the ingredients of that product are.”

Everything I’ve read since then confirms those original seeds planted in my brain that hot dogs are . . . well, nauseating. Get the vegan kind at the health food store if your family likes hot dogs.

That’s why you’ve heard them called “cancer sticks”–they are not just full of salt, but also nitrates and nitrites, which are well documented to be highly carcinogenic.

I’ve had ONE bite of a hot dog in the past 20 years. That was when I was on national television with two cameras and 20 teenagers chanting, “EAT. IT! EAT. IT!”

You know I’m here to nurture you towards better nutrition without being radical. But some “foods” really don’t qualify as such and I ask you to consider a full-on ban in your home of processed meats.

more thoughts about agave

As if we haven’t done this subject to death.

From the consensus of many people commenting on my blog about Mercola coming out against agave, it looks to be about 50/50. People who’ve had a positive experience with that product, versus people who’ve had a negative experience. The only ways I can explain this are (a) we are all individuals, with varying reactions to the same foods, and (b) wide variability in sources.

I went to visit my friend Francine last week and grilled her more. She owns a thriving female hormone clinic called Wellnique in Orem, Utah, specializing in bio-identical hormones. (This keeps women off synthetics like Cytomel and Synthroid, which is a very good thing.) She is a licensed nurse practitioner (requiring an M.S.) and nutritionist. Here is the gist of our conversation:

Robyn: “Francine, you’ve told me that you have Type II diabetics in remission from making no other changes in diet besides switching from sugar to agave. You know there’s a lot of debate right now about various types of agave, and inferior suppliers, and whether agave really has less blood sugar impact.”

Francine: “I absolutely have had amazing results with GOOD agave. When my patients have used the cheap stuff, they gain weight. But with the Xagave brand, which is raw and organic, and they are very involved in their sourcing, I have had tremendous success.

“I often read studies about various things and try them in my clinical practice. If I don’t get the results in my patients that studies guarantee, I’m not going to use it.

“For instance, some studies show that alpha lipoic acid supplementation combats visceral (belly) fat. But I have yet to see any evidence of that in my patients. So I don’t recommend it any more. I want the science AND the positive results in my patients.”

Let me be clear here (Robyn writing): sugars impact your blood sugar, period. Organic and raw from a reputable company like Madhava, GloryBee, Xagave are the ONLY forms of agave I would suggest, and use them sparingly. Let greens and vegetables be the staples of your diet.

Use fruits/dates for the most part when you want sweets. Consider the concentrated sweeteners if you choose not to give up “treats” that remind you of your comfort foods–and not every day. I eat a treat only on occasion after a very healthy (raw or mostly raw, often probiotic-rich) meal.

Joe Mercola and GreenSmoothieGirl on agave

In the natural health space, Joe Mercola is very much a Goliath, and I’m very much a David. Today’s topic: my affinities and differences with his philosophies.

Dr. Mercola responded to my blog posting and newsletter of a week ago, about agave.

I stand firm that drawing fear-based parallels between raw, organic agave from a reputable company and tequila or HFCS is “ridiculous” as I said before.

A raw agave plant is to agave is to HFCS—as an orange is to orange juice is to Tang.

I disagree with Joe Mercola on a variety of issues, including his promoting and selling whey protein, beef, tanning beds, and his metabolic typing theory with no real basis in science.

This whole agave controversy reminds me of something I remember from when my kids were little. There was a group of parents who were furious with the Barney show. The parents decided to form a coalition to fight the producers because they’d decided Barney was really the devil in a big purple suit, teaching kids about séances and witchcraft. The lawsuit, as I recall, referred to Barney the Dinosaur as promoting Satanism.

As a young mother, I remember reading about it in the paper and laughing out loud.

There are so many true evils in the world hurting children. Sweat shots, kiddie porn. Too-heavy backpacks full of textbooks. Let’s not forget McDonald’s products and marketing program. Just to name a few.

Why spend precious energy creating fear about a harmless TV show that has the dinosaur imagining things and disappearing?

That’s how I feel about the agave controversy. Again, I disagree with People Magazine calling it a “superfood” as much as I disagree that it’s going to hurt us when used in moderation.

I have interviewed experts as well. I feel confident that predicting nutritional catastrophe because someone adds a bit of agave to her green smoothie takes away from the real, more meaningful debate.

Let’s attack the true villains gaining traction in the food world: Monsanto; modern practices in raising beef/poultry; corn/soy products taking over the food supply; processed foods; fast foods; GMO foods; pasteurized and irradiated foods.

There’s plenty of evil without attacking the little bit of maple syrup, honey, agave, or stevia we whole-foods advocates use. (Each of those has pluses and minuses. Agave’s pluses are lower blood sugar impact as well as availability in raw/organic form.)

The whole debate takes away from the basic premise I reiterate here over and over:

Plant foods are good preventive medicine. We alter them to our detriment. We have to get back to our roots. Less processed is better, less concentrated sweeteners is better, more natural is better. Whole is good; fractionated and refined is bad.

And I want to say this about Joe Mercola. Some of the things he promotes seem oversold or a bit paranoid to me, and others are counter to what I teach on this site, like an incredibly expensive tanning bed being a good way to get Vita D. However, I respect him tremendously for being one of the first on the internet to start educating people about natural healing. He is smart and educated, and I believe he has good motives.

He and I have the same goal of educating people, empowering them, to eat natural foods and live a lifestyle that avoids reliance on medical solutions such as drugs and surgery.

I agree with Mercola about far more things than I disagree with him about. I appreciate his commenting here on my blog.

How can I promote healthy school lunch in my area?

After my Renegade Lunch Lady blog entry, Emily asked, “What I want to know is what can I specifically do in my area?” She refers to turning nutrition around in the institutions that serve our children. Especially schools. And any organizations that outreach to families.

Well, there are macro issues–for the community organizers and big thinkers. And there are micro issues, for those who just want to take a small task in their local area. ALL these ideas are good ones, and you can start with JUST ONE if you like.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers although I have done most of the things on my list below. So readers, please look deep and tell me,

What have you done?
What have you seen others do?
What do you see that needs doing in your community?

Macro ideas:

Talk to a state legislator and find out local laws, and start the grassroots movement towards good legislation. Find the legislator who wants to sponsor a bill and work with him/her.

Talk to your elementary, jr. high or high school principal about school policy. Propose one. Enlist the help of other parents, finding out what they’ll support. Start a petition.

Help your school (esp. private and charter schools) find a high-nutrition option for school lunch vending.

Petition to get rid of junk food vending.

Sign Jamie Oliver’s petition for healthier school lunches here:

http://www.jamieoliver.com/campaigns/jamies-food-revolution/petition

Micro ideas:

Make a veggie platter for your child’s school holiday party.

Go into the classroom and teach a little class about gardening, and get their hands in the dirt. Plant in little pots in the windowsill if planting outside isn’t an option.

Teach kids where food comes from. You think they know but they don’t!

Go into the classroom and do a green smoothie demo with samples. (Teachers will love it.) Talk about the power of green foods with chlorophyll, the “blood” of plants.

Do a tasting involving veggies and fruits, dips like yogurt or hummus or a roasted veggie spread on whole-grain crackers. Talk about why these foods are better for you than junk like
Cheetos and sodas and cookies. PRAISE children for their good choices and open-mindedness as they taste and express their opinions.

Other ideas, please share them. We have some rockstar parents who read this blog and are bucking national trends, so tell us what you do in your child’s classroom.

Is agave a superfood or a poison?

Dear GreenSmoothieGirl: Dr. Mercola says agave is going to kill me! Is he right?

Answer: I have been inundated with emails about this. In every class I teach, someone brings it up.

First of all, Dr. Mercola didn’t exactly say that, although he allowed it on his web site. Mercola is a brand, a big company, employing lots of people, including staff writers who write stuff for the site and newsletters. The osteopath named Joe Mercola doesn’t do the research and writing. So when I say “Mercola” in this article, I mean “it” (the company/brand/staff), not “he” (the founder of the company).

What I write is all me, by the way–I have no staff writers.

Controversy, right or wrong, unfortunately, adds to Mercola’s 7-figure mailing list and profits. Mercola (and the doctor himself) may or may not be aware that it is wrong about agave. Comparing it to high-fructose corn syrup, or to tequila, is a tenuous, false, almost ridiculous exaggeration. It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the organic chemistry differences.

It’s similar to the comment a pediatrician made to me 15 years ago, when I questioned his suggestion to feed my toddler Sprite for quick energy. I said, “Why not an apple?” And he said, “Whatever. Simple sugars are simple sugars. There’s no difference. They all end up as glucose.”

A similar reductionistic argument you’ve heard before is, “A calorie is a calorie is a calorie.” Really? Then why did the vegetarian group in Campbell’s massive China study eat 200 calories MORE than the heavy meat eaters, and they were lean while the meat eaters were overweight? (Exercise was a variable the researchers controlled for, so that doesn’t explain the difference.)

Apparently you CAN eat more calories when those calories are plant foods. Please comment here if you know well, from experience, that the impact on your body of eating an apple is entirely different than drinking a can of Sprite!

Apples have simple sugars, sure, but they also have tannins that remove insulin from the bloodstream and convert the sugars into energy. Apples have pectin and other fiber to decrease cholesterol and slow absorption of sugars on the bloodstream. Sprite has none of that, just a chemical version of fructose and lots more man-made chemicals. I could make this whole post about the egregious comparison the pediatrician made, but let’s move on to the similar agave controversy.

Mercola’s staff writer acts as if fructose is poison. Yes, fructose is the sugar in high-fructose corn syrup, too. One point Mercola and I agree on is the fact that the highly refined sweetener HFCS is deadly. But fructose is the sugar in fruit, too! Is it possible that fructose can be either good or bad?

Here’s a key point Mercola overlooks. Agave’s sugar is a long-chain polymer of fructose, which is not absorbed by the body and therefore passes through you. Thus there’s a much-reduced impact on your blood sugar of consuming agave (versus HFCS, cane sugars, and honey). It’s not hard to document that agave’s glycemic index is one-third that of sugar or honey.

I personally know a nutritionist who has stopped diabetes in a group of her patients with no changes other than switching from sugar to agave.

So is agave on par with excellent whole foods like apples, spinach, lentils, and barley? No way! An apple has fiber and many other elements that work synergistically to support your health.

But as sweeteners go, if you’re going to use them–and please use all concentrated sweeteners sparingly–raw, organic agave is a very good option. And another of my favorite sweeteners, stevia, contains a compound called steviasides, which shut down insulin production in the pancreas–an even better (calorie-free) option, especially for diabetics.

So, the answer to the question, is agave a superfood or a poison, the answer is, “Neither one.” Don’t fear it. Don’t overuse it either.