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I should preface this by saying that migraine triggers are personal, so I might just be describing my own condition.

As a chocolate lover, I am vexed by the fact that some dark chocolates seem to be the sure path to migraines.  I was wondering if anyone had any insight into what makes them that way.  Oddly, for me certain brands and products are very, very likely to cause them while others do almost nothing.  I know at some level these numbers are marketing, but I have found this variation among even the highest cacao chocolates.

The worst for me are very high cacao (85%) from more mass-market brands: Lindt, Cote d'Or, and Endangered Species.  All but the smallest amounts of these will make me very ill.  Whereas I can eat huge amounts of other brands, in either higher or lower cacao concentrations and I will be fine. Furthermore, there are flavors in common with these bars that seem related and kind of tip me off to a potential migraine.

I wonder if anyone here who knows  cocoa processing well can point to any ingredients or whatever that are problematic.  My thoughts are that commercializing a high cacao % (again, I know it's marketing) at a low price point means some things are done that render the chocolate inedible to folks like me.  Maybe vanilla, maybe agents to bind the bar, perhaps the high cacao means that hide their worst beans in them?

Anyway, just wondered if anyone had any ideas.

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There doesn't seem to be a lot of scientific agreement on a) whether chocolate causes migraines for most migraine sufferers, and b) for those that chocolate does cause migraines for, which compound or compounds is causing it. Some say it may be from the caffeine, tyramine, or phenylethylamine. Caffeine is definitely lowered in the bean during fermentation so a longer fermented bean could be better for you if this is the cause, but no one I know writes their fermentation length on their packaging, except perhaps Claudio Corallo. Caffeine would also probably be higher in "longer bred" varieties like Criollo, but this could be subjective.


tyramine and phenylethylamine are such minor compounds in chocolate that I don't think anyone has studied how they differ in different varieties, origins, or fermentation lengths, and tyramine is found in so many other common foods like cheese, raspberries, and red wine that it would be hard to blame chocolate for upping your intake of this compound.


One things is for sure, the higher the percentage of cocoa solids in a bar, the more of these compounds they will have, but going from cacao percentage written on the packaging to cocoa solids is usually quite a puzzle since percentage is a sum of the cocoa solids and cocoa butter. There are a few posts on The Chocolate Life about how to attempt do this. I'd suggest you make a rough estimate of the cocoa solids of the brands that cause you problems vs. the ones that don't at the same cocoa percentage, and see if there's any correlation with migraine-causing ability.


You may want to check these sources:

Cephalalgia. 1997 Dec;17(8):855-62; A double-blind provocative study of chocolate as a trigger of headache.
Marcus DA, Scharff L, Turk D, Gourley LM.

Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2003 Sep;91(3):233-40; Intolerance to dietary biogenic amines: a review.
Jansen SC, van Dusseldorp M, Bottema KC, Dubois AE.

Bletter, N. and D. Daly. 2006. " Cacao and its relatives in South America: An overview of taxonomy, ecology, biogeography, chemistry, and ethnobotany" in Cameron L. McNeil ed. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, University Press of Florida.

Nat is right on and extremely informative!  Thanks for this excellent contribution.

Although my current understanding is that there is some debate about whether or not cacao seeds actually even contain caffeine.  Nat, can you confirm that cacao seeds really do contain caffeine?  Any external references that you have to validate it would be much appreciated.

FD, to add to what Nat said, I've been gathering data on the cocoa butter to cocoa solids amounts on bars that I've tasted.  You might want to check my file on Choco Files called "Cocoa Butter and cocoa solids sorted alphabetically" to see if there any you've eaten.  Then compare the amount of cocoa solids to try and find a pattern.

Lowe asked: "my current understanding is that there is some debate about whether or not cacao seeds actually even contain caffeine. Can you confirm that cacao seeds really do contain caffeine?"

Lowe, according to data collected by Minifie from multiple sources and tabulated on p.21 of "Chocolate, Cocoa, and Confectionery", cocoa nibs contain 0.07-0.7% caffeine. The same table puts the theobromine content of nibs at 0.8-1.4%

Also, Criollo beans have been found to contain more caffeine than Forastero beans (Kaspar, 2006). Furthermore, the theobromine/caffeine ratio has proved to be a clear indicator in differentiating Criollo and Forastero cocoas (INIAP, 2007).

This is interesting because it contradicts the common comparison of Criollo cocoa with Arabica coffee, and Forastero cocoa with Robusta coffee. (One of the characteristic differences between Arabica and Robusta coffees is that Arabica has about half as much caffeine than Robusta).

Hope this helps. You might also like to take a look at our database of scientific abstracts for more references:


Kaspar (2006) "Identification and Quantification of Flavanols and Methylxanthines in Chocolates with Different Percentages of Chocolate Liquor"

Quote from the abstract:
"The Criollo genus resulted in a significantly greater caffeine content in dark chocolate when compared to a product prepared with similar weight percentages of chocolate liquor from the Forastero genus. Conversely, the Forastero genus produced a chocolate that was significantly greater in theobromine when compared to a Criollo product with similar weight percentages of chocolate liquor.

INIAP (2007) "Project to Establish the Physical, Chemical and Organoleptic Parameters to Differentiate between Fine and Bulk Cocoa - PROJECT COMPLETION REPORT"

Quote from the abstract:
"The results of the project clearly indicated that the physical parameters measured had proved to be inconclusive in differentiating fine from bulk cocoas. On the other hand, the theobromine/caffeine ratio had proved to be a clear indicator in differentiating fine cocoa from bulk cocoa."

In my experience, the general practice seems to be that the higher the overall percentage, the higher the relative percentage of cocoa butter (without increasing the cocoa solids much).

[My guess on why they do this is it that this it's for economic reasons.  That assumes that cocoa butter is cheaper than solids.]


Some terminology because I know you love this stuff.

What we think of as cocoa powder is what the industry technically calls "non-fat cocoa solids." Cocoa butter is also cocoa solids - so it's good to be careful in differentiating between the two when the goal is to be accurate and precise.

Cocoa powder almost always contains cocoa butter. A "high-fat" cocoa powder will consist of 20-24% fat by weight; a "low-fat" cocoa powder will consist of 10-12% fat by weight. It's really expensive (in part because it's time consuming) to go much lower than this. Cocoa powders making "non-fat" claims can do this because of labeling regulations that allow "non-fat" claims when the amount is below a certain threshold per serving (usually less than 1/2 gram).

FYI generally, cocoa butter is generally more expensive than cocoa powder- often much more expensive.


Thanks.  Using the most precise language possible helps to avoid confusion, so I'm all for using the most accurate terms possible.

Unfortunately, many people aren't that precise or use terms in the wrong way.  I think I took my use of these terms from an article in The Nibble: "“Cocoa butter is the natural vegetable fat present in the cacao bean. Beans are approximately 52% cocoa butter by weight (the amount varies by the variety of cacao bean); the rest is cocoa solids"

My line of inquiry started with wondering if there was any correlation between fat content and my enjoyment level (designated by my rating).  Thus far I haven't really found out any such correlation, but I still want to differentiate them.  So overall a cacao bean has fat and non-fat.  I'm trying to be even more precise than cocoa powder since that also has some fat in it.  For example, the Mast Bros and Rogue Piura bars that I'm currently reviewing only list cacao/cocoa beans and sugar as their only ingredients.  What are the best terms for the 2 components of the beans?  How about "cacao fat" or just "fat" for one?  What is the other part?  Solids, powder, liquor, or mass all seem problematic since they actually have some fat.  Is there any term for the non-fat part?  It sounds like "non-fat cocoa solids" may be the closest even if that contains some fat.

BTW, I've also been using "cocoa butter" as synonymous with "cacao fat" although I guess they're not really identical.  I assume that all of the fat is in the cocoa butter, but that cocoa butter has more than just fat.  Is that accurate?

Thanks for your patient help with splitting hairs in this minutia.


The first link to The Nibble article is broken for me. The second one takes me to The Nibble glossary on chocolate.

The entry on cocoa butter contains a lot of inaccuracies - for example, there is more than one way to get cocoa butter from liquor. Hydraulic presses are one, expeller presses are another. I won't go on nitpicking the article because I will be here all night.

In pure cocoa mass, the only fat is cocoa butter. And yes, it is a vegetable fat, and no one whose opinion I defer to uses the phrase "cocoa fat" to refer to cocoa butter. So you can drop cocoa fat from your lexicon.

The Nibble entry is also inaccurate in that they refer to the "powder" as solids. Technically (and this is according to the USDA Standards of Identity), cocoa butter is a solid (it is solid at room temperature) and what we call powder is "non-fat cocoa solids."

When looking at an ingredients list, you have to list added things you add to the recipe. When you see an ingredients label that says cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter it means that the chocolate maker has added extra cocoa butter. If the ingredients list only cacao/cocoa beans, then the bar contains only the naturally occurring quantity of cocoa butter.

Cocoa mass and cocoa liquor are different names for the same thing. The non-fat part of cocoa mass is "non-fat cocoa solids." The fat part of the cocoa mass is cocoa butter. By definition, non-fat cocoa solids contain no fat; that's a technical definition, not a marketing/labeling definition.

I suppose cocoa butter and cocoa fat are synonymous - but you can clear up the confusion by not using cocoa fat. Cocoa butter has more than fat in it in the same way that butter has more than fat in it, though cocoa butter contains almost no water. Cocoa butter contains aromatic compounds (even if it has been deodorized there's still some aroma) and might also contain some teeny-tiny small particles of non-fat cocoa solids that can't be filtered out.

There is a correlation between cocoa butter content and texture, though this relationship is not necessarily straightforward when lecithin is factored in. If you eat a Bonnat chocolate bar you get a very soft, buttery mouth feel because there's a lot of extra butter in his chocolate (how much depends on how much occurs naturally). It's a stylistic choice and you may or may not like it. Another aspect of texture attributable to cocoa butter content is the "hardness" (melting point) of the cocoa butter. Butters with lower melting points are "softer" than butters with higher melting points.



:: Clay

From Clay "FYI generally, cocoa butter is generally more expensive than cocoa powder- often much more expensive."

So why do think there's generally higher fat content in higher percentage bars?  By adding extra cocoa butter the makers are decreasing their profit margin.  It doesn't seem like it's for taste because IMO extra cocoa butter weakens the taste.  But maybe the makers just think most people couldn't handle that much "non-fat cocoa solids".  What's your opinion?

Please reply to my latest posts on the "Cocoa Butter and Cocoa Solids" thread.

Note: I guess that "Cocoa Solids" should have been "Non-fat cocoa solids".


There is no straight-line answer to this. Cocoa butter will weaken the flavor ... if it's deodorized. If the cocoa butter is pressed from the same beans that the chocolate is made from and the butter is not deodorized then the flavor isn't diluted.

When it comes to people handling or not handling the non-fat cocoa solids, there are taste and texture issues. If you make cheap chocolate with cheap beans then reducing the amount of non-fat solids is necessary because they taste nasty. Cover up the nasty flavor by alkalizing, adding sugar, milk, and vanilla, and you have something that might be palatable, but does not have a whole lot of chocolate enjoyment to it - for me.

The point is to separate the two different tasting aspects, texture and flavor.

Thanks to both of you.  I had been scratching my head about this for years, but had only recently thought to find some folks to compare notes.


I am a science nerd, so understanding that the consensus on migraines and chocolate was no biggie.  I even get the conclusive "proof" is elusive. But the fact that certain bars, even in small amounts, seemed to drive me around the bend were what peaked my interest.   I wondered if there was anything unique about their chemistry that might point into certain directions.


First, as far as caffeine is concerned, I am not really sure how to proceed.  I drink coffee with little issue, unless I have a lot and then stop and get a withdrawl headache.  But I know from my experiences with coffee that the molecules are somewhat different among different plants: kola nuts, yerba mate, tea, and even arabica versus robusta coffee all vary in how their xanthine alkaloid effect the CNS.


The chart Lowe provided was interesting.  If anything, it pointed to cocoa solids as potential culprits.  I'd have thought that cocoa butter would be cheaper, but perhaps the use of large amounts of solids in relatively inexpensive bars leads to low quality solids being used?  I realize that 'cheaper'  is almost totally meaningless, since bean variety, growing, and processing are all factors in the final product.


And I still hold out the prospect that there are additional flavorings added to these bars that are the true culprits.


Thanks for humoring me.  Understand that chocolate love can be pretty painful for some of us some of the time!

But I know from my experiences with coffee that the molecules are somewhat different among different plants: kola nuts, yerba mate, tea, and even arabica versus robusta coffee all vary in how their xanthine alkaloid effect the CNS.


Just to clarify, the specific methyl xanthine alkaloids (theobromine, caffeine, and theophylline) do not differ in their makeup, but the relative amounts of each differ between all these plants, and between varieties of each plant as stated above with criollo vs. forastero cacao. There has been some claims that yerba mate contains a different xanthine than caffeine, called mateine that is a stereoisomer of caffeine, but this is impossible since a stereoisomer must have an optical or chiral center (one atom in the structure that has 4 different molecules attached to it, so that a mirror image of this chiral center cannot be rotated back to completely overlap itself), and caffeine most definitely does not have a chiral center.


But there's so many hundreds if not thousands of other compounds in all these plants that could change how they affect your body or how the xanthines are absorbed. This makes arguing about caffeine composition a bit moot. None of the percentages of these other compounds will be marked on chocolate packaging, and even for the same packaging, ingredients list, and nutrition info, the percentages of these compounds could fluctuate alot.


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