Chocolate

Sometimes conventional knowledge doesn’t help. “Cocoa allergy is extremely rare, possibly non existent. Most likely it is whatever else is added to chocolate, milk, nuts, or soy, that causes problems for people.” This is reasonable advice and may apply to most but it is not the only possibility.

I really did not want to give up chocolate. I think most of us in the developed world would understand. (Apparently in the cacao growing regions of Africa, many workers have never tasted chocolate, and toil without knowing what the fruits of their labor are for.) It was my drug of choice. Tending to self-medicate with it when I felt low. Or was it the chocolate that was making me feel low? I needed to exhaust all such possibilities. So of course I spent way too long suffering for each experimentation.

I noticed fairly early on that even just a few dark chocolate chips would cause instant rumbling. And when I started to keep my eye on this, I recognized some patterns. If I had more than a few it actually did seem to affect my mood, as in I really didn’t want to move, and cause softer messy bowel movements.

Naturally I looked it up, found the general advice I noted in the beginning, and since at first I didn’t believe I could be “that sensitive” about most things I started with the darkest chocolates, which didn’t agree, then went on to allergy free chocolates, which alarmingly still didn’t agree.

Da google turned up an alternative explanation from some allergy doctor, which had been in the news some time ago. namely that some people who have allergy symptoms to chocolate may be reacting to cockroach(!). Since the allergen in this case is tropomyosin, folks who have dust mite or shellfish allergies may have cross reactions. 

This was when I learned more than I would like to know about how chocolate is made. Whatever the ingredient labels may indicate, chocolate is not just cacao, sugar, and sometimes milk, etc. It begins its life lying for long periods on the ground fermenting to develop its characteristic flavor. So it has insects, which apparently even the highest quality chocolates can’t guarantee not to have, and later, I realized, mold. FDA guidelines about allowed impurities in food is certainly an entertaining read. And due to the manufacturing process of chocolate and its gooey sticky nature, it is one of the worst offenders regarding cross contamination. Some estimates say upwards of 70% of dark chocolates have traces of milk and nuts. So, the conventional knowledge is, again, reasonable, but just may not be the only explanation.

At this point I had a consultation with an allergist and asked her opinion. Somewhat disappointingly she just repeated the same general knowledge I knew at the beginning even though I told her I had also tested “allergy free” chocolate. She also didn’t know the products I was talking about. (Somehow I expected she would know. Wouldn’t she be fielding lots of questions from parents, kids… chocolate chip cookies for all those milk, nut, and soy allergic kids?) I did come away with confirmation and new knowledge of mold allergies, specifically to aspergillus, which might be an explanation in my case.

Without much guidance to turn to, I tried cocoa powder, still not good. And started to wonder what would reasonably be the purest product that I could test? I sure can’t start growing my own cacao, so what would be the next best thing? As minimally processed as I can find? That’s when I remembered cacao nibs that had started to turn up in health sections. I’m not sure what I was thinking. Would I make my own chocolate if it agreed with me? Anyway, I bought a pouch. I nibbled on one, then just started the next when I could feel the familiar rumbling in my stomach with a vengeance. That was it for me. Whatever the exact cause, if I wanted peace in my system, there was no chocolate product that agreed.

Now as to why this might be? Cockroaches? Perhaps, though highly doubtful it was in any meaningful amount in the nibs and I still have the same reaction. I am more inclined to two other guesses. It might be a reaction to mold, which due to the fermentation process, there always must be some traces of, even in the least processed cacao nibs. Or some kind of mainly gastro intestinal sensitivity to seeds. Cacao is the seed of a fruit that looks somewhat similar to papaya. Perhaps others might have problems with tropical fruits and that is the cause. I don’t know if some with natural rubber latex allergies might have cross reactivity issues. (A quick search turns up latex being used as adhesive on some chocolate bars. Yet another possibility for some. The more you know!)

I did get a bit upset when I found, unlike “true allergy” information, which kept repeating cacao allergy is likely non-existent, apparently for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) chocolate is among the top three triggers. Well then, allergy docs, couldn’t you at least point to such possibilities? That people are not imagining things. It may not be “true allergy” in its narrowest definition but there are other mechanisms, that no one fully understands, that may be causing the distress. Non-IgE or cell mediated immune reactions, gastrointestinal inflammation, chemical intolerance (cacao has plenty of these as well… phenols, amines, theobromine…) and perhaps even things yet unknown.

So, with much tears, goodbye to chocolate and all its heavenly derivatives. At least for now, or for this life, I cannot know for sure, but I did savor you while it lasted.

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