The Great Cocoa Debate

For those of you about to start the January 2014 Whole30, this repost is a fun little insight as to how some of our rules came about. 

Last week, Whole9 reader Chris posed what appeared to be a relatively innocuous question about our Whole30 program.  Chris wrote, “Is 100% pure cocoa okay?”

This simple yes-or-no request prompted a 17 hour heated debate within the Whole9 household.  We battled, we point-and-counterpointed, we took time outs so we could cool off enough to continue the discussion.  And while this actually isn’t a big deal issue for us – certainly not one worthy of an entire blog post – Dallas hates to lose, and I love to argue.  Which means this debate could rage on for months while poor Chris stands poised with a spoon full of cocoa powder over his steaming cup of coffee, pleading, “Just TELL ME, people.”

So today, we thought we’d share our points of view here with our readers, and ask you to weigh in on the issue.  Just for fun.  (And the smug and shameless joy that comes with winning an argument.)  So read, share your thoughts, and then we’ll announce the final decision at which we arrived, as an addendum to this post.  Just hang in there, Chris.

Melissa’s Position:

It’s true that 100% cocoa is not the same as commercially processed chocolate.  It’s natural, unsweetened, may have some negligible health benefits (which plays no part in my thought process, but I’m sure Dallas will mention it below) and technically meets all the criteria of a Whole30-approved food.  But making a technically perfect food choice isn’t the whole story of a Whole30, and we’re not about to let something with potentially significant mental and emotional down sides slide in on a technicality.  And certainly not something that misses the bus as much as a CHOCOLATE substitute. Hell, if we let cocoa slip into our program, you might as well add red wine and label us “Primal”.  (And nobody, especially me, wants that.)

While 100% cocoa sure isn’t sweet in flavor, it’s chocolate-y enough that many will see it, use it and abuse it as a pseudo-chocolate crutch.  You know who you are –  the carb-addicted sugar-a-holics,  missing your beloved chocolate while on the Whole30.  And while you are here to change your habits, change your cravings and change your relationship with food… you are also desperate enough to get your fix by rationalizing the addition of “Whole30-approved” cocoa powder to your coffee, coconut milk and anything else that could act as a Pseudo-Chocolate Delivery Mechanism.

And that goes against everything the Whole30 stands for.

So while I have no issues with the technical properties of the food itself, I’m not okay with allowing a functioning chocolate substitute like 100% pure cocoa into our Whole30 program.  It’s not just about the food choices, it’s about breaking patterns, habits and cravings, and 100% pure cocoa is simply not contributing to that particular cause.

Dallas’ Position:

While I’m certainly not a proponent of including foods in our Whole30 program that are “iffy”, I believe that our rationale for including or excluding foods for our Whole30 program should be consistent and rational. In my opinion, 100% unsweetened cocoa (which, by the way, isn’t all that much fun to eat all by itself) is much like, say, cinnamon. It can be used to provide flavor to many delicious dishes, many of which are clearly not Good Food, but in and of itself is a innocent enough plant product.

We talk a lot about being aware of why we make the food choices we do, and that exorcising your Sugar Demon is a major goal of the Whole30.  As one example, we caution people not to overeat fruit during the Whole30, since fruit does contain sugar (and is often very sweet-tasting).  We make the point that substituting fruit for a handful of candy is not achieving the goal of freeing yourself (and your brain!) from the powerful bonds of sugar addiction. But just because fruit contains sugar doesn’t mean we categorically exclude it – only that we encourage you to be careful and thoughtful about your fruit consumption.

Melissa says the rich, intense chocolate-y flavor of 100% cocoa could be reminiscent of your (old) favorite chocolate bar.  But using cinnamon in my PWO sweet potato could remind me of the glorious taste of a Cinnabon roll… and yet cinnamon gets two thumbs up from the Whole9! It’s not just about whether cocoa can be made into something that doesn’t even remotely resemble health food – it’s about carefully considering why you are choosing to eat it. If you’re still in the midst of your Whole9 Chocoholic Rehab Program, then steer clear (just like I’d tell those of you who are still in serious sugar withdrawal to pass on dried fruit initially). If, like me, you are in complete control of your Sugar Demons, then cocoa is nothing more than a spice, added to improve the flavour of your dishes.  Let’s not scapegoat the Theobroma cacao, people.  There are no direct down sides of 100% pure cocoa, and therefore it should be allowable by Whole30 standards.

Your Turn:

Post thoughts to comments!

The Verdict

We decided that 100% cocoa (or cacao) is acceptable on the Whole30. You’re welcome.

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  1. Sara in Brooklyn says

    I like this “he said, she said” format! Because, in the end, each one of us has to figure out what we have to say about what/how we’re going to eat – especially when *not* talking Whole30 (which is most days, for most people).

    I have year-round rules (never=gluten/dairy; rare=any form of sugar; you get the idea). That makes Whole30 rules easier to contemplate, and it’s still a big endeavor. But once I carve out my 30 days, I’ll have to make the rules my own, if I’m going to make them work.

  2. Tamara J says

    While I understand what is being said, it would now lead me to question if it is okay to have Well Fed’s Chocolate Chili which is Whole30 approved or isn’t there also a recipe in ISWF that is a chocolate/Cocoa Steak Rub? Are these foods now no longer Whole30 approved?

  3. Gloria says

    I’ve read that cocoa consists of mind-altering substances and therefor makes us addicted to it. Even if it’s good (?) for the brain it’s still addictive… I think putting it in your coffee is having swypo… So I’m with Melissa on this one. :)

  4. Sara in Brooklyn says

    Of course…coffee is known to be an addictive, mind-altering substance :) IMO there’s no 100% answer to any of these questions. Dallas & Melissa provide fantastic answers (and when we’re signing on board for *their* program, we’d better listen up).

    If using unsweetened chocolate to reduce the caffeine dose in coffee, as opposed to faking dessert-like experiences, it could be a great transition tool for someone looking a caffeine addiction in the eye, and pondering. I don’t think chocolate, unsweetened, would be very tempting to someone craving a sweet dessert. It’s naturally very bitter, which is part of its charm. I’ve made bitters with raw cacao nibs (*not* Whole30 compliant!), and it’s not something I think you could mistake for a candy bar.

    I do agree that making candy bars with raw dates and raw cacao nibs = making candy bars… and the notion of chocolate-flavored fish oil is as weird to me as citrus-flavored fish oil. Or ‘flavored’ coffee. I’m beginning to see how it is I’m drawn to the Whole9/Whole30!

  5. says

    Tamara, 100% cacao or cocoa is fine on the Whole30, so any recipes that use that as a spice are also approved. Melissa’s chili and our mocha-steak rub are great choices during your program!

    Gloria, we all have to know our own bodies and minds. If cocoa is too “triggering” for you (leading to thoughts of chocolate), then it’s best to leave it out of your program. Good for you for recognizing that!

    Sara, you’re totally right–cacao isn’t sweet at all, which is why we’re not worried about people using it all alone as a sub for candy bars. Unless they combine it with dates and frozen bananas… in which case, we’re in a SWYPO situation, right? Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    PS The chocolate-flavored fish oil is actually pretty good. Weird, but good.


  6. says

    I am a chocoholic. A big part of my doing a whole30 right now is to make chocolate less of a daily wind down habit and more of a choice. And to me it is not the sugar. i am not fond of milk chocolate. I find even the 70% kind too sweet. I prefer 80-90%. I love the 100% with an espresso. Mmmm!

    The 100% chocolate bars I have is technically compliant, meaning that it contains only cacao solids and cacao butter. However, I have decided that for me I will not touch it during my whole 30. I can easily see myself sitting down with a few pieces of that chocolate and a de-caf espresso after putting my kids to bed. That would be using food for relaxation, and in my mind that is not what doing whoe30 is about. So I save that precious chocolate for after my thirty days are up, and I plan to make it a weekly-monthly thing rather than a daily one. A choice, not an addiction.

    • says

      Jenny, well done! This is exactly the kind of independent thinking we encourage on the program. The rules are the rules, but if you believe that something that is “technically” okay isn’t right for you, leave it out. After all, it’s only 30 days, and changing your habits is critical to your success. Keep up the good work! Melissa

  7. says

    Well, there is this interesting article..

    I gave up dark chocolate when I did Whole 30. It was tough for me as I feel that is really one of my only vices. I could argue both points. I like it really dark, but even the 100% dark I avoid as it is just too bitter and so I didn’t feel like I had to have my chocolate fix regardless, no matter how much of an addict I seem to be :-) I feel the same argument can apply to coffee. I am biased of course, because I don’t drink it. But I feel many have more of a stronger addiction to coffee which is controversial in its benefits or lack thereof and people seem to go even more “crazy” when you want to take it away from them. I tend to weigh more that coffee is “worse” than the cocoa. I guess I am saying that I feel coffee should not be part of Whole 30 (don’t shoot me!) but I digress. :-) – I do tell people that if they feel it is something they absolutely feel like they cannot live without it, then try to do their best to eliminate it for 30 days. I believe that is your take on it too.

    Also, being labeled as “primal” isn’t such a bad thing ;-) — The definition I like of primal is: “having existed from the beginning; in an earliest or original stage or state.” – Unfortunately the labels of “paleo” and “primal” have been taken out of context in the past few years due to the words in the mainstream, etc.

    Love the new site and am looking forward to 2014 and all that Whole 9 will offer. I am grateful for you vast knowledge and dedication. I appreciate you guys so much! Thank You!!

  8. Suzanne Burton says

    I’m okay with using the unsweetened high-fat cocoa in dishes like Melissa Joulwan’s chocolate chile. It’s definitely not a replacement for any dessert type dish, and therefore will not derail me. However, using it for something like her sweet and salty chocolate date bombs would feel unethical for me during a whole30, because those definitely are like candy, even if technically the ingredients are okay (except vanilla extract?). After all, I’m doing the whole30 for me, to be my healthiest, so I may as well support myself in achieving that goal.