CRISPR: An Innovative Technology in Ag

genetic code crispr

CRISPR, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a technology that can affect anything – or anyone – that has a gene. It has the potential to make monumental changes in human medicine, animal health, and agriculture. Although human trials are not fully underway, editing a human genome to cure cancer and/or eliminate blood diseases, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s is just one example of the medicinal and human health genetic possibilities scientists are currently exploring with this gene editing technology.

Genome Editing with CRISPR-Cas9. McGovern Institute for Brain Research, MIT

The gene editing future is so optimistic that scientists are even attempting to convert an Asian elephant into a wooly mammoth to combat climate change. Additionally, scientists at MIT are combating the Zika virus by either changing a gene within the mosquito so it cannot host the Zika virus or making susceptible mosquitos sterile so they cannot breed and further spread the virus.

Curious about eliminating the food allergy gene in eggs or peanuts? What about virus free pigs? The laundry list of opportunities for CRISPR is tremendous and expansive. As a first look at CRISPR, D2D will focus on some of the CRISPR possibilities that will affect agricultural plants and animals.

How does CRISPR work?

Let’s take a moment and go briefly back to high school science. DNA is a double-stranded molecule that contains a genetic code. Essentially, there is a set of “instructions” stored in DNA that dictates how a human, animal, or plant is constructed from multiple amino acids (the building blocks of proteins).

The messenger RNA (mRNA) is the exact single strand replica of the DNA, except its role is to carry out the instructions of the DNA, and tell the proteins what to construct. These proteins build muscle, give us the color of our eyes, and help assemble all the genetic traits any organism with DNA carries. Think of the DNA as the architect creating the blueprints for a new house and mRNA as the contractor who takes the blueprints and directs the plumber, electrician, and woodworker to build the house to the exact specifications.

Traditionally, any changes made to an organism’s DNA has to come through years of selecting specific characteristics and then cross-breeding those traits into specific varieties. CRISPR accelerates the process by precisely creating the new DNA sequence, cutting out the existing DNA that needs to be replaced and using the Cas9 protein to guide the mRNA to the specific spot to make a genetic change.

Each cell has DNA. Sections of DNA can be naturally altered if it is malfunctioning or if it needs to be changed. The CRISPR process can take these specific DNA sections, cut them out, and/or replace them with another code. The Cas9 protein specifically cuts out a section of the existing DNA and then existing cellular enzymes insert the new DNA sequence.

Rewriting the Code
Scientists can use the gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9 to correct disease-causing mutations. Here’s how it works: (Source: Innovative Genomics Initiative. Credit: John Gould/The Wall Street Journal)

A chunk of RNA is programmed to look for a specific problem segment of DNA. It is paired with a natural protein called Cas9 taken from bacteria, where it functions as a genetic scalpel.

Once inserted into a cell, the RNA/Cas9 combination looks for a DNA sequence that matches its RNA.

When it finds a match, the Cas9 cuts both strands of the DNA.

Repair enzymes can fill and seal the gap in the DNA with new genetic information to change the underlying genetic code.

Let’s go back to the architect/contractor example. If there is a flaw in the framework, rather than tearing the whole house down and starting over, the general contractor (mRNA) identifies the flaw compared to the blueprint and directs the woodworker (Cas9) to cut it out, and replaces it with a perfect frame. The two videos below provide more detail.

Video by Jennifer Doudna, biochemist at UC Berkeley who created the CRISPR-Cas9 editing sequence.

Science is the future of agriculture

Today’s agricultural goals are to grow enough food to feed a growing population on our current land while enhancing sustainable environmental goals. Crops grown to resist pests and weeds with fewer chemicals, less water, and higher yield are considered the ‘holy grail’ of farming. Animals grown with strong immune systems, more muscle, more milk, and being conscious of the environment and animal welfare is critical for today’s farmer. Selecting the best traits using conventional breeding often takes decades (sometimes generations) to get the desired result. However, with a population increasing to 9 billion by 2050, we don’t exactly have time on our side. Now with gene editing techniques, producing and selecting these traits can be much more precise and achieved in a shorter period of time. Here is a sample of some agricultural companies that are either partnering with gene editing companies or independent working in the gene editing field.

Recombinetics is focusing on using gene editing to combat world hunger by focusing on animal genetics, human health, and human life. Some of their projects include Foot and Mouth disease resistance, milk composition, and production in dairy cows, or better feed conversion to yield more meat. One simple example goes toward animal welfare in cows. For instance, just about all cows are born with horns and (in modern agricultural systems) horns are an undesirable trait for safety and animal welfare perspectives. Removing them is important for herd animals, but it is a difficult, wieldy, and uncomfortable process for both farmers and cows alike. Through CRISPR, they have created the first hornless cows. Rather than breeding a Holstein horned cow with a hornless Angus cow, they just edit the gene in the traditional Holstein cow to create hornless Holsteins.


Source: Genetic Literacy Project

DuPont has invested in Caribou Biosciences, a spin-off from Jennifer Doudna and the University of California, Berkeley. They are currently working on modified starch corn production, drought resistance in corn, and hybrid wheat to increase crop yield.

Source: Caribou Biosciences

The University of Missouri and Genus, an animal genetics company, are among the first to use CRISPR-Cas9 to breed pigs to be resistant to the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV). In 2013 alone this virus killed more than 10% of the entire U.S. herd.

Source: Scientific American

Archer Daniels Midland has partnered with Synthetic Genomics to produce a consistent supply of Omega 3- DHA from CRISPR edited algae.

Source: Synthetic Genomics

The Regulatory Process

Because gene editing techniques are more closely associated with natural genetic processes, the USDA is currently considering whether to regulate it or not. To date, they have given several gene editing plants a pass on the food safety assessment.

As we have mentioned, GMOs are the most highly tested agricultural product on earth. The fact that CRISPR products are not going through the same regulatory process is certainly interesting. For example, scientists at Penn State successfully deleted the browning gene in a mushroom genome. The removal of this enzyme reduces the browning process in mushrooms, thus increasing their shelf life. Removing the discoloration from fruits and vegetables reduces the millions of tons of food that is wasted every year. Because the CRISPR-Cas9 edited mushroom did not have any foreign DNA inserted, the USDA has determined that it does not require further testing or regulation.

The decisions around the regulatory process are critical to the success of CRISPR. Will CRISPR follow in the footsteps of GMOs? Or will the USDA and FDA consider it the same as traditional breeding and eliminate regulatory approval? Whatever the answer, it is critical that the rest of the world is on the same page because the food supply from the United States is an integral part of the global food system. CRISPR will certainly have implications on trading, importing and exporting food around the world.

NYT: Reporting Based on Science?

fingers typing on a computer keyboard

Contributing writers Susan LeamanDiane Wetherington, and Samantha Duda have extensive experience and knowledge in the food industry. Susan works with companies and associations to develop solutions that address produce-related food safety issues; Diane is CEO of iDecisionSciences, LLC, a provider of specialty crop consulting services, and iFoodDS, Inc., a software solutions provider for the food industry. Sam joined iDecisionSciences, LLC as a research and analytics associate.

We were curious what experts in this field thought about the research presented by Hakim to support his claims, and found that a number of respected scientists swiftly responded.

Many who wrote letters to the editor or posted their opinions online called the author’s main assertion that GM crops were designed primarily to increase crop yields and reduce pesticide use as “a false premise”.

Dr. Steve Novella in his blog NeuroLogica writes, GM technology “is not inherently tied in any way” to any one application. Rather, he describes the promise of GM technology as providing “a tool for agricultural scientists to make more rapid and more specific changes to crop cultivars” using methods deemed “safe with no demonstrable inherent risks beyond any other method of crop development”.

In an open letter to the NY Times Public Editor (, a group of scientists assert GM crops were “designed to manage and mitigate some of the causes of crop loss, especially pre-harvest losses due to insect pests or weeds.”

To many scientist critics, Danny Hakim missed the point of GM crops from the start.

Crop Yields

Let’s take a closer look at the claim “GM crops promise, but do not deliver high crop yields.” To support this claim, Mr. Hakim uses rapeseed (canola) yield data from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to compare GM rapeseed yields in Canada to non-GM rapeseed yields in Western Europe. The data that is presented by Mr. Hakim does show that non-GM rapeseed yields in Western Europe are higher than Canadian GM rapeseed yields even as yields are increasing at a similar rate for both production areas.

Comparing yields in developed countries is inappropriate with since GM crops were not intended to further increase already high yields in developed countries like the United States and Canada.

GM crops are widely used in developed countries today primarily for two traits:

  • Insect resistance (IR; resistance to certain types of pests)
  • Herbicide tolerance (HT; imparts tolerance to an herbicide like glyphosate).

Graham Brookes, an agricultural economist with PG Economics UK, notes it is not surprising that average yields are higher in Western Europe than in Canada due to the seasonality of this crop. Canadian rapeseed is mainly a spring crop whereas in Europe, it is a winter crop, and winter crops generally yield better than spring crops.

Dr. Matin Qaim, a professor of agricultural economics at the Universities of Bonn and Kiel, further points out that Canadian farmers use GM rapeseed to reduce herbicide cost, labor, and fuel use due to the herbicide tolerance trait, and not to increase yields.

Although prior to the implementation of GM technology, many North American farmers were already using effective pest and weed control methods. Dr. Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C. explains that seeds provide superior pest control to non-GM seeds. GM seeds are designed to select and attack a specific pest rather than a broad-based effect typically delivered by common pesticides.

If you assume (as Danny Hakim proposes) that one of the main reasons developed countries like the U.S. and Canada use GM crops is to increase yields, it is still inappropriate to evaluate yields solely based on genetic modification. According to Graham Brookes, a seed’s genetic capability and “its ability to withstand yield-reducing effects of pests, diseases and weeds” are only two of many factors that affect yield. When considering the complex nature of the outdoor growing environment, there are numerous factors affecting yield including weather, soil quality, farming practices, inputs (e.g., fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds), farmers’ knowledge and skills, and the effectiveness of existing technology to control pests, diseases, and weeds among others.

Dr. Qaim published an analysis of 147 independent studies showing GM technology has indeed increased crop yields worldwide by 22% with developing countries experiencing higher increases in yields than developed countries.

GM crops and reduced pesticide use

Danny Hakim reviews herbicide, fungicide, and insecticide use data from the Union of Industries of Plant Protection in France, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support his claim that GM technology broke its promise to reduce pesticide use. He states “the United States has fallen behind Europe’s biggest producer, France, in reducing the overall use of pesticides, which includes both herbicides and insecticides”.

The data in the chart he used as evidence to support this claim had different units of measurement (thousand metric tons for France, compared to million pounds in the U.S.). Additionally, the amount of pesticides is not standardized per unit area. As Dr. Andrew Kniss, an associate professor in weed biology and ecology at the University of Wyoming points out, this is acutely important since the U.S. has over 9 times the amount of arable land that France has. After converting the chart to the same units and standardizing by farmland, it is clear that France (though reducing their pesticide use) still uses far more pesticides than the U.S. — in particular fungicides and insecticides. As Dr. Kniss explains in his analysis of Mr. Hakim’s article,

“A relatively tiny proportion of these differences are likely due to GMOs; pesticide use depends on climate, pest species, crop species, economics, availability, tillage practices, crop rotations, and countless other factors. And almost all of these factors differ between France and the U.S. So this comparison between France and the U.S., especially at such a coarse scale, is mostly meaningless, especially with respect to the GMO question.”

Dr. Andrew Kniss, Associate Professor in Weed Biology and Ecology, University of Wyoming

Dr. Kniss also posted charts showing herbicide use for other European countries as evidence pesticide use has actually increased, with France being one of a few exceptions.

In the U.S., switching to an herbicide-tolerant crop allows more toxic herbicides to be replaced by a less toxic one such as glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup®…

Dr. Kniss reports, “Glyphosate has lower chronic toxicity than 90% of all herbicides used in the U.S. in the last 25 years.” So as U.S. farmers increased their glyphosate use, this usage has replaced more toxic herbicides that posed known risks to the environment and human health. Assessing herbicide usage alone misses the overriding fact that harmful effects on the environment and human health from more toxic herbicide use have dramatically decreased due to the implementation of GM crops. A 2016 peer-reviewed study took into account a pesticide’s environmental impact in its analysis and found that U.S. farmers growing GM maize and soybean crops used as much soybean herbicide as non-GM crop adopters, 9.8% fewer maize herbicides, and 10.4% fewer maize insecticides (Perry, 2016).

Hakim used a faulty comparison and an inaccurate chart to support his claim that pesticide use, as measured by weight, has not been reduced— but is using weight to evaluate pesticide use even useful? The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) doesn’t think so.

In their report, on The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the U.S. released early this year, the NAS recommended “researchers should be discouraged from publishing data that simply compares total kilograms of herbicide used per hectare per year because such data can mislead readers. Simple determination of whether total kilograms of herbicide used per hectare per year have gone up or down is not useful for assessing changes in human or environmental risks.”

Otherwise, using the measurement of weight for pesticide does not tell us anything about its toxicity. While Hakim cites pesticides such as sarin in his discussion of pesticide toxicity, he does little to explain the toxicity differences between pesticides commercially available and used in agriculture today and pesticides developed decades ago and nefariously used as weapons in wars.

To say that all pesticides are toxic is true but misses the point that they all differ significantly in the magnitude of toxicity and the organisms they affect.

In her response to the NY Times article, Dr. Nina Fedoroff who is Emeritus Professor of Biology at Pennsylvania State University explains how herbicides used today are developed to be toxic to plants by interfering with biochemical pathways and processes humans do not have.

For readers who are researching GM crops whether driven by interest or concern, it is imperative to investigate reports that appear to contradict other published peer-reviewed scientific studies. The formal and informal peer-review process that comes with publishing in the scientific literature provides an added level of confidence you are getting information that is not manipulated to support a particular narrative.

Rarely does technology create a magic bullet, and genetic engineering is no exception. However, the article goes beyond discussing any downsides to GM technology by misusing data in an attempt to dismiss the value of GM technology altogether. This article ignores the fact that farmers are business people who rely on their land and crops to stay in business. They test different varieties of seeds and analyze benefits and trade-offs to see what works best for them. So if the cost of GM crops outweighs the benefits, farmers will be the first to react by not planting GM seeds.


coconut split open
This post first appeared in November 2016 and the market statistics were updated in February 2019

Coconut products are available in a variety of forms. From raw products like coconut water, fresh coconut meat, and coconut oil to processed products like coconut palm sugar, coconut flour, and coconut flavoring, consumers are going nuts for this proclaimed “superfood.”

The seemingly endless health claims include high in vitamins, high in minerals, high in fiber, healthy saturated fat content, aids digestion, antiviral and antifungal properties, antioxidants, and electrolytes.

Coconut products are officially mainstream and (because of the perceived health benefits) they appear to be here to stay. According to some industry estimates, the Coconut Water Market is expected to exceed more than US$ 2.7 Billion by 2024 at a CAGR of 15% between 2017 and 2024.

But before we hop on the coconut bandwagon, the D2D team wanted to make sure that these health claims are substantiated by scientific research. While we found many small, short term studies that indicated coconuts are a healthy addition to your diet, there is still a significant need for long term research and human trials to conclude that coconuts can provide these health benefits over time.

Saturated Fat and Digestion

One of the claims surrounding coconut products, particularly the products that are made from coconut meat (like coconut oil) is the “healthy fat” claim. As we reviewed in our article “Fat: Our New Friend,” new research indicates that consumption of healthy fats can help increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) (the good cholesterol), which helps your body regulate overall cholesterol levels and possibly lower your LDL cholesterol levels. According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, coconut oil gives your body a good HDL cholesterol boost, which can actually help improve overall blood cholesterol levels.

The most prominent fatty acid in coconut meat is lauric acid, a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT). Lauric acid is considered a healthy saturated fat because of its composition. MCT fatty acids are easily absorbed by the human body. This means the fatty acid is easily broken down, used for energy, and can help aid digestion.

A very small study published in 2003 by the Journal of Nutrition followed 11 women over a 20-22 day period and studied the effects of high-fat versus low-fat coconut oil consumption. The research found that the women who consumed high-fat coconut oil demonstrated the biggest reduction in inflammation markers as well as markers for heart disease risk.

Definitive research on the health content of coconut oil only exists in the short term, so there is no certainty over how the high-fat content of coconut oil affects heart disease or long term heart health.

Anti-fungal and Anti-bacterial

Beyond the cholesterol and potential weight loss benefits of healthy fatty acids, the fat content of coconuts is also believed to have anti-bacterial properties. In a 2004 study published by the Journal of Medicinal Food, the antimicrobial properties of coconuts were proven to be a treatment of fungal infections. The lauric acid content of coconuts is believed to “kill harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi.” However, there is a lack of research to substantiate this claim. While the fatty acid in coconut may have some antibacterial properties, there is no long term research that validates coconut oil as an antibacterial agent.

Antioxidant, Electrolytes, Vitamins and Minerals

Coconuts are particularly high in B vitamins, like B6, B2 (riboflavin), and B1 (thiamine). B vitamins are a good source of energy and can give your body a quick pick me up. Coconut meat is also high in vitamin C, which helps boost your immune system, is an antioxidant, and helps aid digestion.

In addition to a rich vitamin complex, coconuts have a dense mineral content. These minerals include potassium, magnesium, sodium, phosphorous, manganese, iron, and calcium. Of these minerals, potassium, calcium, sodium, phosphorous, and magnesium are electrolytes.


These minerals may also be good for your blood pressure as high potassium content can balance some of the negative effects of sodium. A 2005 study published by the West Indian Medical Journal found that 71% of participants that were given coconut water experienced a decrease in blood pressure.

Lastly, coconuts are believed to have a strong antioxidant component. But, as we learned in our recent article on chocolate, antioxidant content is very complex. Unfortunately, there is very little research that proves the effects of antioxidants in the human body. However, in a 2007 study performed over a 45-day period on rats, researchers at the University of Kerala found that animals fed virgin coconut oil had higher antioxidant vitamin levels at the end of the study than the animals fed sunflower oil or copra oil (which is oil from more mature coconuts). Additionally, a 2013 study conducted in Brazil determined green dwarf coconuts exhibited antioxidant properties.

If you are incorporating coconut into your diet there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Coconut meat is high in fat, dietary fiber, and minerals such as manganese, zinc, iron, and phosphorous.
  • Coconut water contains the same minerals as well as amino acids, electrolytes, and B-complex vitamins.
  • Stick to the raw, unrefined options. Unprocessed coconuts (both juice and meat) will provide the most nutritional value.
  • Be mindful of serving size! One serving of coconut water (8 ounces) contains roughly 14 grams of sugar. As we have discussed in “Sugar is Sugar”, that is roughly half of the added sugar recommended per day.
  • As with all fats, overconsumption can cause cholesterol to rise—even if you are overconsuming healthy fats!

Source: Harmless Harvest

A “New” Burger

meat in a petri dish

Consumers are asking for new sources of protein.

Veggie burgers have been around since the early 1980s, but they are beginning to take on a new life. This may be somewhat surprising given strict vegans and vegetarians only account for roughly 3% of global consumers.

However, according to Mintel Market Research, 59% of consumers in the United States eat a “protein alternative” at least once a week. If you fall into this category, you are considered to be a “flexitarian.”

Through extensive polling, Mintel has found that there are four possible motivators for consuming meatless protein:

  1. Environmental effects of raising cows, hogs, and chickens.
  2. Food safety concerns regarding E. coli O157: H7 and Salmonella.
  3. Meat-related allergies—although these are rare, meat avoidance can be related to food allergies and intolerance.
  4. Health and wellness concerns associated with super-fruits, super-greens, super-grains, and raw food.

Meatless meat

In response to consumer health and environmental concerns, there are two kinds of meat innovations:

  • meatless meat that looks and tastes like ‘real’ meat, sourced from vegetable proteins, and
  • “farming” meat from animal cells, without slaughtering a full animal.

Large food processing companies are hopping on the meatless bandwagon.  Tyson Foods has invested a 5% stake in Beyond Meat. Google Ventures invested in Impossible Burgers, whose signature is  a plant-based iron molecule that makes this burger look “bloody.” Some other companies include Gardein, known for their bestselling meatless meatballs and fishless fish fillet.

If you are substituting a vegetable-based protein with a meat or chicken option, are you still getting the name nutritional content…?

Meatless vs Meat: is it better for you?

Humans are carnivorous. Our digestive system is made to properly digest meat. Meat protein has an essential combination of protein, vitamins, and minerals to help keep our bodies healthy and strong. The nutrients from meat help our blood cells form, enhance our immune system, help our muscle tissue growth, and support our nervous systems. Keep in mind that while a meatless option is a good alternative, it might not meet the same amino acid, vitamin, and mineral, and antioxidant profile that you can find in an eight-ounce piece of red meat.

By eating real meat, you can know that you are receiving many important nutrients.

While there are a few products on the market that may be able to provide an equal serving of protein, how does the rest of the nutritional profile measure up?

For example, you can get 100% of your daily intake of vitamin B12 from one serving of red meat, whereas the Beyond Meat “Beyond Burger” will only account for 20% of your daily intake of B12. The reverse is true with iron at 25% and 12%, respectively.


Source: Beyond Meat

Looking again at the Beyond Meat “Beyond Burger,” there is 380 mg of sodium. That’s about 20% of the recommended daily value! To put this into perspective, a McDonald’s plain hamburger contains 125mg of sodium and a freshly ground beef burger (80% lean) contains 64 milligrams of sodium.

How does the taste of meatless options compare to the real thing?

While all of these meatless meat options have branded their products very well, we were still a bit skeptical. Is it possible that a meatless hamburger can compare to a lean ground-beef burger? We decided the only way to determine this was to try them ourselves. The D2D team took a field trip to Whole Foods and bought an assortment of meatless products. We report, that overall, prepackaged meatless meat fell short of the real thing. Depending upon the cooking process, the meatless burgers did not elicit the same positive response that a cheeseburger typically does from our hungry families at dinner.

Mintel’s research found that while consumers are willing to give it a try, about 45% of “meatless” consumers think that the meat-substitute is overly processed and/or too high in sodium. Roughly 72% of all global consumers are interested in what the meatless meat is made of— whether it is corn, soy, wheat, or vegetables and what other ingredients have been added to it.

The Future of Meat: Cultured Meat

The food technology that can recreate the similar taste and health claims of traditional meat is “cultured meat.” This growing technology was examined in the International Conference on Cultured Meat in October 2016 in Maastricht University (Netherlands). The conference focused entirely on creating meat grown in a lab. Topics included: tissue engineering and 3D printing, cell production, mass production of avian muscle cells, and technologies needed to bring cultured meat to market.

Two companies are working to get cultured meat to our dinner plates:

New Harvest, a 501 (c) (3) research institute ‘accelerating breakthroughs in cellular agriculture’ invested $50,000 in Dr. Mark Post who created the first cultured burger at the University of Maastricht.  The focus of New Harvest funding is on growing muscle cells in an animal free environment.  This is backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin

The US-based company leading work on cultured meat is Memphis Meats. Memphis Meats believes, “instead of farming animals to obtain their meat, why not farm the meat directly fromhigh-qualityy animal cells?

 “We envision that our production process will provide everyone with meat that is consistent,
fresh and delicious.“ 
Dr. Uma Valeti, CEO, Memphis Meats

Memphis Meats is developing the process of taking true meat cells from a cow, hog, or chicken and feeding them the nutrients they need to grow into the meat. It is not an easy process and has taken months to bring the cost down from tens of thousands to just a few thousand…per meatball! The majority of this cost is from the manpower needed to “babysit” and harvest the cells that grow and discard the cells that stagnate.

The benefits, once the cost comes down, is that the meat does not have any of the E. coli O157: H7. issues that can affect beef or the Salmonella that can come with chicken. Additionally, the cultured meat does not need to be fed, housed, or watered, which ultimately provides less stress on the environment. Memphis Meats expects their products to be cost competitive (and eventually more affordable than) conventionally-produced meat.

There is room for all kinds of protein options

Memphis Meats – cultured meatball

Protein can take many forms: as animal meat, vegetable protein, and even insects. The global population today is 7 billion people, expected to grow to almost 9 billion by 2035. The projected increase in protein is approximately 250 million metric tons in just the next 15 years. Everyone needs some form of protein to maintain a healthy diet. Furthermore, as incomes rise, especially in developing countries, the demand for protein will increase.

Crazy for Cocoa

chopped chocolate

We’re hungry to know…is chocolate healthy?

Of course, the answer is not as straightforward as we would have hoped! Dark chocolate is said to contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It has also been touted to increase blood flow, improve heart health, and decrease cholesterol. But, has this been scientifically proven?

The chocolate products we know and love all begin with raw cacao beans. Grown mostly in the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Indonesia, the cocoa pod is a fruit that contains roughly 50 large cocoa, or cacao, seeds per pod. These seeds hold all the nutrients.

Cocoa pods grow straight out of the trunk or branches of the cocoa tree.

Whole and half fresh ripe cacao fruit and seeds

The nutritional content of a raw cacao bean

Originally dubbed “food of the Gods”, the cacao (or cocoa) bean is the unprocessed form of chocolate that contains over 300 healthy compounds such as such as Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B9 and Vitamin E, minerals like iron, zinc, magnesium, copper, and calcium, and antioxidants, such as flavanols and catechins. Cocoa beans are also rich in fiber and healthy fatty acids, like oleic acid and palmitic acid.

As we mentioned in our recent article “Fat: Our New Friend,” there are many benefits to consuming healthy fatty acids. These fats help your body absorb vitamins, protect your brain, and provide support to your cell membranes. We have also reviewed the importance of vitamins. The vitamins in cacao can help maintain healthy cells, organs, and tissues, which can keep your body from wearing down.

Antioxidants are a little more complex

The science behind the effects of antioxidants is controversial. Many of the research undertakings are performed “in vitro,” which means the test occurs in the lab as opposed to in the human body.

While results indicate that consuming cocoa can improve blood vessel function and heart health, this might not be true for everyone. Additionally, how your body uses the antioxidants is unclear. This is why there are no chocolate products on the market that make health claims.

According to the MARS Center for Health Science, cocoa provides the most potent form of flavanols, a subgroup of the antioxidant flavonoids. Flavanols are found in plants like tea, blueberries, acai, and red wine. Research indicates that the consumption of flavanols has been positively correlated with improved blood vessel function.

Substantial data suggests that flavonoid-rich foods could help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. Cocoa is the richest source of flavonoids, but current processing reduces the content substantially.” (International Journal of Medical Sciences)

A 2006 study focused on the link between dark chocolate and its ability to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease in men. The study included 470 elderly men and measured their blood pressure at the start of the study, five years later, and incorporated a fifteen year follow up. The men consumed cocoa-containing foods, which over the course of the study, reduced blood pressure and subsequently, the risk of cardiovascular death.

Catechins, another type of flavonoids, are also believed to help stabilize the free radicals that can affect cell health. Free radicals may enter your body through pollution and cigarette smoke, as well as the normal digestion process. Once they are inside your body, free radicals can cause cell damage and ultimately can kill healthy cells. Catechins help fight against and neutralize free radicals.

However, the difficulty with truly understanding the role of antioxidants is that science has not been able to measure the antioxidant effects in the human body.

The more roasted, fermented, and processed the cocoa beans are, the fewer nutrients the chocolate product will provide. The cocoa beans used in dark chocolate are often less manipulated and will typically have more nutritional benefits than milk chocolate. 100 grams of dark chocolate provides about 50 milligrams of catechins, while a similar amount of milk chocolate contains about 8 milligrams.

From our research, when it comes to serving size, the best recommendation to reap the nutritional benefits of chocolate without overconsuming fat or sugar is roughly 10 grams of dark chocolate. To put that into perspective, that is little under 1 serving (about 8 chips) of dark chocolate from a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips with 48% cacao OR about 10-11 chips of 60% cacao dark chocolate chips.

That being said, if you are looking for the healthiest cocoa products to obtain the benefits of this powerful superfood, you are better off buying a product that has not been roasted at high heat or overly processed. Compared to the average chocolate bar, raw cacao products will provide more vitamins and minerals, contain a higher antioxidant content, and possibly increase blood flow and heart health.