One of the reasons cocoa showed up on the radar as a potential health benefit all started because of a group of people on an island off the coast of Panama. The Kuna Indian population which resided there was found to have a very low prevalence of atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension (high blood pressure) (1,4). One of the things that epidemiologists noted was that the Kuna Indians had a high intake of a daily homemade cocoa drink (yes there is a difference between cocoa and chocolate but we’ll get to that). The thing that caught researcher’s attention was that once these Indians began to migrate away from their native islands to more commercial areas their health traits began to disappear as their consumption of their cocoa drink decreased or as they consumed higher levels of commercially processed cocoa (1,4). We also want to add that they were having about ten times the amount of of cocoa that most of us would get in a single day (1).

Chocolate, Cocoa, and Processing

Yes, as we mentioned, there is a difference between chocolate and cocoa. Cocoa is grown from the Theobroma Cacao tree. The savory treat comes from it’s pods where the seeds from the plant are dried then ground into a powder. The seeds give out two main ingredients: cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Both are used as common ingredients for every day things you can find at the supermarket. Typically, the higher the content of cocoa, the darker the chocolate (cocoa powder has a dark brown color whereas cocoa butter has a white chocolate looking texture) (1,3). Remember how we said that the Kuna population ate a complete different kind of cocoa than most people do? Well, the cocoa that we eat has been roasted, processed, and filled with additives such as sugars or whole milk that degrade the health benefits that cocoa to offer (4,7). As you would would imagine, cocoa powder can be manipulated in many different ways. Cocoa powder can be used to make many different chocolate flavorings from frosting to ice cream to chocolate bars itself – the list really does go on. When looking to get any health benefits from chocolate, keep in mind that the darker the chocolate the healthier it is for you (4). Below is actually a picture of what cocoa pods look like before they’re harvested. As you would imagine, a lot of work goes into making them taste sweet.


cocoa pods, chocolate, cocoa

Chocolate Health Benefits

Have you ever wondered why dark chocolate is more bitter than milk chocolate? Cocoa has about 380 known chemicals (5). As cocoa becomes more and more processed it loses its antioxidant power and bitter flavor. In a final product such as a milk chocolate bar, the health effects might be decreased anywhere from 10% to 100% based off the manufacturing processed used (5).

As far as chocolate and your health is concerned, there have been many studies done in regards to chocolate and it’s health benefits. Here’s what we know: cocoa contains large amount of antioxidants called flavanoids. Flavanoids are types of antioxidants found in many, many different plants – some that you’re probably familiar with too. Actually, chocolate has higher levels of flavanoids and antioxidant capacity than found in even green tea, black tea, blueberry, garlic, strawberries, or wine (4,5,7).

Chocolate and Inflammation:
Oxidative stress not only affects both the inflammatory process and atherogenesis (the formation of plaques in your arteries), but also has break down your cells and have a cancer causing effect. The antioxidant effects of chocolate may have important consequences for oncogene expression and cancer pathogenesis (5,6). Because the antioxidant activity is so high in chocolate, its properties are very good at inhibiting inflammation and oxidation. But, here’s the kicker: the peak anti-oxidant effects of chocolate were at about two hours after consumption and after about 20 hours anti-oxidant effects were virtually non-existent.

Chocolate and Blood Pressure:
Thanks to nitric oxide like compounds that are in chocolate, the type of muscles that make up your veins and arteries (known smooth muscles) become relaxed (4,5,6,7). When your veins and arteries relaxed they are more flexible which allows blood to pass through your veins and the overall effect is a decrease in blood pressure. The flavanoids in chocoalte also help to block something in your body called angiotensin. This hormone causes your veins and arteries to restrict where the end results is an increase in blood pressure. Keeping this hormone inhibited helps to keep blood pressure lower (4,5,6,7). There’s actually a whole class of prescription medications out there made to block that hormone called ACE Inhibitors.

Chocolate and Cholesterol:
Cocoa antioxidant properties are shown to decrease the oxidation of LDL cholesterol while increasing overall HDL levels (5,6,7). The problem that leads to plaque buildup in the arteries isn’t necessarily high cholesterol – it’s when cholesterol becomes damaged (or oxidized) and then the damaged cholesterol ends up sticking to your arteries and ends up forming plaque. The antioxidant properties help prevent this and overall, chocolate does not raise cholesterol! This is due in part to it’s stearic acid in its cocoa butter content. Stearic acid is a saturated fat that makes up about a third of cocoa butter. Remember that argument out there saying that saturated fat is bad for you? Well, it’s not really true and it’s time for the medical community to catch up to what science is showing.

Chocolate and Aspirin:
Yep, you guessed it, chocolate has aspirin like effects in that it keeps your blood cells from clumping together. This is called an anti-platelet effect. In addition to having an anti-platelet effect it also decreased platelet adhesion (4,5,6,7). This can be a big significance if you’re at risk for a stroke or heart attack – many people actually take aspirin as stroke and heart attack prevention to help keep the blood more thin.

Chocolate and The Brain:
Ever heard of serotonin? It’s a neurotransmitter that helps send a calming signal to your body. Yeah, you guessed it, chocolate helps promote serotonin production leading to a reduction in stress (4,6). A study done on subjects that included a brain MRI after consuming cocoa also showed that those subjects had better blood flow to the brain (4,6). Other studies have showed the same and in addition to that, they also showed improved brain performance (4,6). Given that chocolate increases blood flow and also has aspirin like effects it’s no wonder that daily cocoa consumption can reduce the risk of a stroke (4,6).

Does Chocolate Promote Sex?
It’s probably just wishful thinking – or you’re just a horn dog. Yes, serotonin levels produce a pleasurable effect but it’s unrelated to sex. If serotonin levels are actually high enough it can be converted to melatonin which as you know, promotes sleep (6).

Summing Up Cocoa, Chocolate, and Health Benefits

– There’s now pretty significant research that cocoa has a benefit to your heart and brain by reducing inflammation, decreasing blood pressure, and reducing oxidation.
– Dark chocolate is better – there’s no way around it. The darker the chocolate and the less amount of additives and processing the better (avoid Hershey’s).
– Cocoa is better than dark chocolate. Find it if you can.

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Sources:
1. Claims About Cocoa – Can It Really Be Good For you? National Institute Of Health. Maryland. August 2011.
2. Castelle, M., Castellote, C., Franc, A., Massot-Cladera, M., Perez-Cano, F. “The Effects of Cocoa On The Immune System.” Frontiers in Pharmacology (2013): n. pag. Web. 15 June 2013.
3. Ellam, S., Williamson, G. “Cocoa and Human Health.” Annual Review of Nutrition (2013): n. pag. Web. 15 June 2013.
4. Latif, R. “Chocolate Cocoa and Human Health- A Review.” Netherlands Journal of Medicine (2013): Vol. 71 No. 2 63-68. Web. 15 June 2013.
5. Andujar, I., Giner, RM., Recio, MC., Rios, JL. “Cocoa Polyphenols and Their Potential Benefits For Human Health.” Journal of Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity (2012): n. pag. Web. 15 June 2013.
6. “Cocoa.” Natural Standard – The Authority On Integrative Medicine. Web. 15 June 2013.
7. Fraga, C., Keen, C., Holt, R., Oteiza, P., Scmitz, H. “Cocoa Antioxidants and Cardiovascular Health.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2005): n. pag. Web. 15 June 2013.