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Chocolate draws out the raw truth

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Johanna Skrzypczyk in New York City using Raw Gaia's Raw Chocolate Face Pack. (Courtesy of Ruzgar Barisik)

Yoga teacher Joanne Eales loves raw chocolate. At first, just as a delicious snack that’s high in anti-aging antioxidants. Now she’s doubling her pleasure by putting it on her skin.

“It’s like food for my skin,” said Eales, 32, of London. “It feels quite nourishing,” she said of the Raw Chocolate Face Pack, a new product from U.K.-based Raw Gaia, which specializes in organic and raw skin care products. She said that raw chocolate--which is made at low or no heat using raw, unprocessed cocoa beans--makes her skin glow and feel alive, and that the darker shade of the chocolate seems to put a slight natural tan on the skin.

Anyone who still thinks chocolate is just for eating--and maybe drinking--is well behind the times. Just talk to friends or browse the Internet: people are using chocolate to make soap, finger paint, candles and even sculptures. And chocolate skin-care products, for use in spas and at home, have also made their way into popular culture.

“We always say that this is a place where people come to be dipped, wrapped, and submersed in chocolate,” said Lynne Zsido, a manager at The Spa at Hotel Hershey, commonly referred to as The Chocolate Spa, part of the chocolate maker’s entertainment and lodging complex in Hershey, Pa.

The Chocolate Fondue Wrap, the Whipped Cocoa Bath (a patented foaming chocolate milk bath), and even a chocolate pedicure are all on the menu at The Chocolate Spa. And so is the latest addition from 2007, the Cocoa Facial Experience, which in one rendition includes the same Hershey’s cocoa powder used to make the chocolate bars. During its first year of existence, in 2001, The Chocolate Spa received just under 19,000 guests. In 2007, the number soared to just over 50,000, according to a spokeswoman at the Spa.

“They rubbed the chocolate all over my body and my face. It was wonderful,” said Mary Morris, a novelist and travel writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., describing the Chocolate Embrace she received recently at The Spa at The Westin Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. The embrace includes a chocolate and mint exfoliant, a warm chocolate mask, and finishes off with a chocolate moisturizing lotion. “My skin felt great afterwards,” Morris said.

But for many raw foodies, it’s not just about feeling great. They contend that people can get the benefit of chocolate’s healthful properties by putting it on their skin.

“It didn’t make sense to be pure on the inside, eating a diet that was 90 percent raw, and then put all these products with preservatives on my skin,” said Lisa Lennon, 40, an artist and co-founder of Raw Gaia. She started the company after experimenting with raw products in the kitchen to treat her own excessively dry skin.

“Our whole philosophy is that if you put food on the skin, it actually feeds the skin, with the chocolate,” she said. Lennon said she is not aware of studies to prove it, but from experience she sees that chocolate is good for the skin.

David Wolfe, of San Diego, Calif., co-author of the book “Naked Chocolate,” has gained a reputation as a raw nutrition expert and leader of a raw chocolate movement in the United States that has had rippling effects abroad.

Back in 2004, when Wolfe could not find raw cocoa beans for purchase in the United States, he started importing them from Hawaii and Ecuador through Sunfood Nutrition, a company set up to sell raw foods and related products.

“I couldn’t believe the most popular food in the world, in its original form, was impossible to get,” said Wolfe, 37, who has a law degree and a master’s in vegan and live food nutrition from the University of Integrative Science California.

The raw cocoa beans that Sunfood Nutrition imports do not undergo any cooking or processing, and thus retain their original antioxidants, minerals and vitamins, Wolfe said. Sunfood Nutrition sells not only the beans, but also raw cocoa nibs, raw cocoa powder, and raw cocoa butter, for eating and use as a skin moisturizer.

According to Wolfe, raw cocoa butter delivers the essential elements of the raw cocoa to the skin, like vitamins and antioxidants, because the butter consists of oils that have such small particles that they can penetrate even the smallest of pores.

Cooked cocoa butter, on the other hand, would just stay on the skin surface without penetrating it, because the oils get coagulated in the cooking process, according to Wolfe. He said he has not experimented with other raw chocolate skin-care products to know how well they penetrate the skin.

But not everyone agrees that applying chocolate to the skin has any lasting effect. “The role of the skin is to keep things out, and it does a good job of that,” said Dr. Zoe Diana Draelos, a dermatologist in High Point, N.C., and editor of the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. Antioxidants can be good for the skin when they enter the bloodstream, but they do not get absorbed through the skin itself, said Dr. Draelos, who had a chocolate facial once but does not use chocolate skin products to treat herself or her patients.

Chocolate facials may leave the skin feeling smooth and soft, she added, but those are temporary effects, likely due to other components of the facial product, including moisturizers.

What’s certain is that scientific controversy has not hindered creativity when it comes to raw chocolate skin products. The Altogether Now Love Butter was launched in 2006 by Flowers Shining Everywhere, of Haliburton, Ontario, a company that produces a line of products called Living Libations that it sells via the Internet and in retail stores.

The Love Butter, a massage oil made from raw cocoa beans, is “for use from lips to hips,” said Nadine Artemis, 33, a botanical formulator who co-founded the company five years ago with her husband Ron, 38, a yoga instructor who likes to feed raw chocolate to his students at the start of his chocolate yoga classes.

The Artemises were introduced to raw cocoa beans by Wolfe in 2004 in Toronto, where they started their company, Flowers Shining Everywhere. Last year they started selling a raw cocoa oil for bath, body and massages.

Hector Bolanos, who with Lennon co-founded Raw Gaia in Britain, said it is tough to top the power of chocolate.

“It quickly became one of our best-selling products. We sold over 500 jars in the first two months, and it keeps growing.” With distributors in Canada and in Europe, the company wants to enter the U.S. market, according to Bolanos. It sells the Raw Chocolate Face Pack to U.S. customers over the Internet, but wants to expand by into retail sales through health food stores, apothecaries, and spas.

He also noted that matcha tea, a type of powdered green tea, has high levels of antioxidants. But when asked about the possibility of a Matcha Tea Face Pack, he answered, “Well, normally you only drink tea.”

E-mail: dro2102@columbia.edu