Can You Be Allergic to Cocoa?

Freshly baked cookies, close up
Freshly baked chocolate cookies. (Image: Howard Shooter/Dorling Kindersley RF/Getty Images)

Although health professionals do not deny the possibility of a cocoa allergy, they do suggest it occurs only rarely. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says only 4 percent of adults experience true food allergies. Of that small percentage, 90 percent react to one or more of only eight foods: milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, wheat, shellfish and fish. Often, those with "cocoa" allergies really are reacting to another ingredient in the cocoa product.

Possible Culprits

For distinction purposes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration spells the name of the actual bean as "cacao" and the bean ground into powder as "cocoa." When ground into powder, the bean comes into contact with surfaces and other substances. The equipment may have been used to process other products, and the powder itself may be combined with preservatives and sweeteners before it is added to a chocolate product. Traditional chocolate bars contain not just cacao bean parts, but other ingredients such as sugar, artificial sweeteners, milk, nuts, wheat, soy, corn syrup and caffeine. Someone with lactose or gluten intolerance may react to the milk or wheat content, while someone with a nut allergy may react to bits of peanuts or peanut oil in a chocolate candy bar. Chocolate also may contain nickel, which causes skin reactions in some people.

Symptoms

Symptoms often associated with allergies to cocoa or cocoa products include headaches, hives and other skin rashes, rectal itching, heartburn, breathing difficulty and confusion. In extreme cases, exposure may cause anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction characterized by shortness of breath, confusion, rapid drop in blood pressure, chest pain, dizziness, heart palpitations, nausea, diarrhea and loss of consciousness. If you suspect anaphylaxis, call immediately for emergency help.

Diagnosis

Consult a physician for help in diagnosing the true cause of your ailment. To start, the doctor probably will conduct a physical examination and ask for details on past reactions, such as how soon the reaction occurred after eating, which foods you ingested and in what quantities, and whether home remedies, such as over-the-counter antihistamines, alleviated symptoms. From there, the doctor may recommend a blood or skin test of your body's reactions to specific allergens.

Treatment

If you are, in fact, allergic to the cacao bean, avoid all products containing cocoa. Also, you should approach cola products with caution, since the antigens may be related and may elicit similar allergic reactions. If you are allergic to an ingredient often combined with cocoa in products, always read the ingredients listed on product labels before consuming them. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires manufacturers to list on labels whether products contain or may have been exposed to any of the top eight food allergens. Consult a doctor first, but you may be able to tolerate higher-quality dark chocolate, which usually contains fewer ingredients. Also, depending on the severity of your allergy, consider wearing a medical alert ID bracelet. If your doctor prescribes allergy medication, such as epinephrine, always carry it with you. A doctor may also prescribe lotions or antihistamines for skin rashes and an antacid or anti-diarrheal for gastrointestinal reactions.

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