I am a chocolate addict.
For years, I have eaten chocolate to bury feelings of pain, emptiness, or sadness.
(I also love how it tastes, of course. Who doesn’t?)
But I always wondered… was chocolate giving me acne?
It was always super hard to tell. If you’ve ever tried to isolate whether one specific food gives you acne, when there are always 100 things changing in your life, you know what I’m talking about.
But when I realized I had an iron overload problem (read about iron and acne here), I felt like I “should” stop eating chocolate.
It was HARD. That’s because I used to eat up to a whole bar of 85% dark chocolate EVERY DAY.
We used to buy 12-packs of organic 85% dark chocolate bars on Amazon. Two at once. That would last us 2-3 weeks.
And whenever I felt sad or stressed out, I craved chocolate. I ate some, and then I felt better, without dealing with the underlying soul pain.
Sound like an addict to you? Does to me!
But aside from the addiction, which was preventing me from fully expressing my repressed emotions and growing spiritually, I began to suspect it was giving me low-level acne. The reasons are a bit complicated, so let’s dig in.
There were a few old (junky) studies done on chocolate and acne years ago, but they lacked proper control groups and were poorly designed, so the results were meaningless.
Dark chocolate exacerbates acne.
The effects of chocolate on acne exacerbations have recently been reevaluated. For so many years, it was thought that it had no role in worsening acne. To investigate whether 99% dark chocolate, when consumed in regular daily amounts, would cause acne to worsen in acne-prone male subjects, twenty-five acne prone male subjects were asked to consume 25 g of 99% dark chocolate daily for 4 weeks. Assessments which included Leeds revised acne scores as well as lesion counts took place weekly. Food frequency questionnaire was used, and daily activities were recorded. Statistically significant changes of acne scores and numbers of comedones and inflammatory papules were detected as early as 2 weeks into the study. At 4 weeks, the changes remained statistically significant compared to baseline. Dark chocolate when consumed in normal amounts for 4 weeks can exacerbate acne in male subjects with acne-prone skin.
Finally, a properly-designed study! But wait… no control group? Scratch that! Not a properly designed study!
Seriously, researchers, this is NOT how you do nutrition science. You need a CONTROL GROUP to come up with any meaningful results at all.
You need to give 25g of pure chocolate to half the subjects, and 25g of a placebo to the other half, and then compare results.
But eh… this is the best we’ve got. It sort of looks like chocolate increased acne in these 25 men, but we can’t know for sure. Maybe they just believed that chocolate would worsen their acne, and made it true with the extremely powerful (and scientifically verified) placebo effect.
But I still have an inkling that chocolate gives me low-level breakouts… sometimes.
Why might this be?
- Giving me too much iron
- Disrupting my sleep
- Making me anxious angry
First, iron. As I’ve written about before, I think excess iron can strongly trigger acne when it reacts with PUFA in the body.
And chocolate has a ton of iron. A whole bar of 85% dark chocolate has 12 milligrams of iron, or 67% of your daily value. (I think the daily value is WAY too high, by the way – read my iron article for more on why I think anemia is almost never due to a true iron deficiency, but rather to deficiencies of other co-factors.)
So iron reacts with PUFA in your body (and PUFA stores up in your body from years of eating veg oil and whatnot), and forms lipid peroxides, which are the single strongest direct acne trigger, or so my research has led me to believe.
I also discovered recently that chocolate was REALLY screwing up my sleep.
If I ate a good amount of dark chocolate in the afternoon or evening, I would wake up in the middle of the night, just bolt upright. Wide awake. And this was usually 8 hours after eating the chocolate. I’d be wide awake for an hour or two, mind racing, before being able to sleep again.
How could this be? Now, chocolate actually doesn’t have caffeine, contrary to popular belief, but it does have theobromine (which is also what makes it toxic to dogs). Is that what was causing my sleeplessness?
Or was it iron-related? Could excess iron be feeding pathogenic bacteria in my gut, which might be somehow releasing some chemical or endotoxin that made me wake up?
I’m not sure, but it’s a strong effect for me nonetheless, and I can’t ignore it.
I know this is going to sound bizarre – but I began to realize that chocolate was also making me angry. The day after I ate chocolate, I was more likely to snap at my partner Sonia or my two-year-old daughter, or at worst, burst out in rage at the slightest trigger. (I had to take a pillow into the bathroom and rage into it for 10 minutes just to vent it all – yikes.)
And I’ve seen a study showing that when you get angry, it makes your acne worse within a day or two. (Can’t find the link at the moment.) Not sure why this happens, but anger may boost inflammation.
The crazy part? I only just made this connection, between chocolate and anger, in the past few months.
Kind of like how I only just realized that modern wheat gives me nightmares (I’ll save that for another post).
Chocolate also tends to make me a bit anxious, perhaps due again to theobromine being a nervous system irritant. I had some REALLY bad anxiety attacks 1-2 years ago, for a few months, until I started to get my iron overload under control (read more here).
This isn’t directly related to acne (unless you count that soul pain can worsen acne, which I think it can), but it’s really important to me all the same.
I’ve been doing a lot of research in the past year about how my lifestyle, and the foods and stuff I buy, harms other people and animals and ecosystems all around the world (especially the Global South).
When I dug into chocolate’s impacts, I found some surprising (and awful) facts.
Yes, I always was careful to buy Fair Trade and organic chocolate. But is Fair Trade really all that fair to the cocoa farmers? Turns out not so much.
When you pay $3.49 for a fair-trade, organic dark chocolate bar, do you want to guess how much of that money goes to the cocoa farmers in Africa or Central or South America?
Three gorram pennies! For a whole bar of chocolate?! Does that sound fair to you? It doesn’t to me!
The cocoa farmers are literally only making 0.9% of the retail price of those “fair-trade” chocolate bars. That means 99.1% of the money is going to multinational corporations, rich white people in the developed world, etc. No thanks.
When I buy eggs from my neighbor Louisa, you can bet all $7 goes right into her pocket. 100%! That’s the power of buying local food – you keep the money right in your neighborhood, and it goes right to your farmer, rather than losing 99.1% to a long string business interests.
And did you know that a single cacao tree only produces enough cacao for two chocolate bars in a whole year?
And have you calculated the environmental impact and fossil fuel pollution of shipping cocoa from Africa or South America up to Switzerland for processing, and then all the way over to the US or wherever you live? Ugh.
Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s environmentally friendly – not if it’s shipped halfway across the world twice to get to me.
I started to really feel sad about buying chocolate, knowing that it was having all these effects, even the “fair-trade” stuff.
Combined with the anger and anxiety issues it was giving me, and the acne risk from the high iron (and my own iron overload problem), I decided to (mostly) give up eating chocolate.
I’m not 100% about it, and if someone gifts me a bar of chocolate, I will accept it graciously and enjoy it. But I will not regularly spend my money on chocolate anymore.
There are some Direct Trade chocolatiers like Taza and others that are worth looking into, if you want to keep buying chocolate. They pay cocoa farmers much more than the standard Fair Trade premium. Search the web for “Direct Cacao” to find links to some other companies.
I can’t make this decision for you – all I can do is express my heartfelt feelings on chocolate and tell you where I stand.
I’m not trying to guilt you into stopping chocolate – I don’t think it’s a good idea to stop doing things out of guilt, generally. It just breeds resentment.
It’s much more powerful, to me, to stop doing things because they make you feel sad. Buying chocolate makes me feel sad due to the pain it causes me, the environment, and exploited cocoa farmers. So it feels in integrity to me to stop buying chocolate (most of the time!).
If that’s not you, then please do not stop buying it on my account!
Though if you are still struggling with acne, and you suspect that chocolate is a factor, then it’s worth experimenting with avoiding chocolate for 3-4 weeks and then reintroducing it. Does it make your skin react at all?
If so, you might just decide to eat less chocolate (like me). Does it mean quitting chocolate forever? Of course not! Sometimes you just gotta let loose, eat chocolate and be merry!
By the way, if you happen to live somewhere where cacao trees grow, by all means support local farmers and co-ops and buy direct from them! Then it’s a great local food option. 🙂
Share it in the comments below. I’d love to hear it!
- Chocolate has a lot of iron, which might worsen acne by reacting with PUFA in the body and forming toxic lipid peroxides (the most potent acne trigger there is, I think).
- Chocolate gave me anger and anxiety issues, likely because of an iron overload problem.
- If you think chocolate is giving you acne, try avoiding it for 3-4 weeks, and then eat a bunch at once. Does your skin react?
- “Fair Trade” chocolate isn’t really fair to cocoa farmers, who only get 3 cents for every $3.49 chocolate bar you buy, or 0.9%. The other 99.1% goes to big business, shipping companies, processors, distributors, and other rich white people.
- Direct Trade chocolate, from Taza or a similar brand, is much better for cocoa farmers. Search the web for “Direct Cacao” for some brands that do this.
- Chocolate is a small piece of the whole acne puzzle. I wrote an easy-to-understand master guide about how to solve the acne puzzle once and for all, using a variety of little-known diet and lifestyle hacks. (Even if you think you eat healthy now, and have tried everything, I guarantee you there’s things you haven’t tried in my book that can help! No case of acne is too difficult, in my experience.)
- Vongraviopap S, Asawanonda P. Dark chocolate exacerbates acne. Int J Dermatol. 2016;55(5):587-91. (link) ^
- https://www.chegg.com/homework-help/fair-trade-really-fair-chocolate-comes-small-beans-grow-coco-chapter-2-problem-2cq-solution-9780538478755-exc ^
- Available at: http://www.chocablog.com/features/how-fair-is-fairtrade-chocolate/. Accessed December 17, 2018. ^