Cocoa health benefits
The perceived cocoa health beneﬁts date back to the ancient Mayans, who mixed ground roasted cocoa beans with spices to make a fortifying, albeit bitter, drink. Nowadays, cocoa is often processed with fat, sugar and sometimes milk to mask the bitter flavor. The problem is that this process lowers flavonoid content and adds calories. Not all chocolate is equal. So here are some things to keep in mind.
Chocolate: good for the heart and brain. Or just wishful thinking?
Pure chocolate is made of nonfat cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The higher the nonfat cocoa solid content, the higher the flavonoid content will be. White chocolate contains no nonfat cocoa solids.
Cocoa butter is combined with cocoa solids in varying amounts to give chocolate a melt-in-your-mouth quality. It’s the major ingredient in white chocolate. Most of the fat in cocoa butter is stearic and oleic acids, which don’t raise cholesterol. But gram for gram, fat of any kind packs twice as many calories as proteins and carbohydrates. So read labels and keep an eye on calories!
While the news about chocolate, especially cocoa, is encouraging, research hasn’t yet identiﬁed the optimal dose for cardiovascular beneﬁts. For now, it’s best to limit yourself to a few squares of dark chocolate a day (the darker the better). Health could be the reason to start eating chocolate, but if you’ve decided to add it to your daily pleasures, be sure to cut calories elsewhere to control weight.
Chocolate a health food?
In the past decade or so, chocolate’s reputation has undergone an extreme makeover, from fattening indulgence to health food. A steady stream of studies has given cocoa and dark chocolate high marks for cardiovascular beneﬁts. They show improvements in cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood clotting, coronary artery function and insulin sensitivity. The most likely explanation for these good effects is that the cocoa bean is rich in flavonoids. Flavonoids are naturally occurring antioxidants, found abundantly in certain fruits and vegetables, tea and red wine. A study suggests that the flavonoids in chocolate may be good for the heart in yet another way…
In a randomized trial involving 42 older women and men at high risk for cardiovascular disease, Spanish researchers gave half the participants 40 grams (about 1.4 ounces) of unsweetened cocoa powder in 16 ounces of skim milk every day. The other half of the participants only got plain skim milk. After one month, the cocoa drinkers had lower levels of adhesion molecules — proteins that cause white cells and other substances to stick to the walls of the arteries. Adhesion molecules are an inﬂammatory marker, linked to heart disease. They contribute to the formation of atherosclerotic plaques that can obstruct an artery or rupture, triggering a heart attack or stroke. In addition, cocoa was found to increase ‘good’ HDL cholesterol levels. The study was published in the November 2009 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Cocoa and heart health
The flavonoids in cocoa—speciﬁcally catechin, epicatechin and procyanidins—are thought to help the cardiovascular system by lowering cholesterol, reducing inflammation and preventing blood clots. Flavonoids reduce blood pressure and unhealthy LDL cholesterol. They increase healthy HDL cholesterol, improve blood flow and lower insulin resistance (a condition in which the body doesn’t use insulin effectively, which is associated with type 2 diabetes and heart disease).
So far, researchers have only conﬁrmed cocoa’s short-term beneﬁts on heart risks—not the outcomes of lowering those risks. In other words, cocoa flavonoids may counteract the high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other factors that contribute to a heart attack. Whether they actually prevent one from happening isn’t yet known.
Cocoa and the brain
Scientists also discovered that cocoa may be healthy for the brain. A team of researchers at Harvard Medical School found that older adults who drank two cups of cocoa a day for 30 days had improved blood flow to parts of their brain needed for memory and thinking.
Another study, published in the journal Hypertension in 2012, offers even more direct evidence of cocoa flavonoids’ effects on the brain. Researchers in Italy found that older adults with mild cognitive impairment (mild problems with memory and thinking skills that increase the risk for dementia) who drank high-flavonoid cocoa performed better on tests of mental function and speaking ability than those who drank low-flavonoid cocoa. These studies don’t prove that cocoa can prevent dementia or other kinds of mental decline, but it does appear to play some brain-protective role.
The average dose of flavonoids in the studies was 400 milligrams a day. The problem is, that’s about the equivalent of eight bars of dark chocolate or 30 bars of milk chocolate. When you eat these actual chocolate bars, all the calories and sugar come with them.
To get the health advantages of cocoa flavonoids without the fat and calories, you can buy a more concentrated cocoa product, like the unsweetened chocolate (cocoa liquid) from Genauva®.
If you do want to indulge in a small piece of chocolate each day, make it dark. The higher the cocoa content of the bar, the better it is for your health (look for bars with 70% cocoa or more). Although a couple of chocolate squares may not do wonders for your heart and brain, they will please your taste buds without adding too many inches to your waist.
Written by: Dr. Patrick Vercammen, M.D.