Theobroma cocoa is the scientific name of the plant more commonly known as the cocoa tree. The name bears a Greek origin and literally means “food of the Gods”. The cacao tree has been used for its health-related benefits ever since the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations were established. Historians claim that South America was home to the first cocoa tree. Cocoa was later on brought on the European continent as well, following America’s discovery by the European conquerors. Specialists in medicine have yet to discover all of the cocoa’s benefits and properties. Cocoa is believed to maintain a normal blood pressure and delicate skin, aside from its positive impact on the heart, brain and general body condition. More scientific research is to be conducted to establish cocoa’s status as a super food once and for all. Even so, it is easy to regard it as such, given that it has been used for centuries by very smart medicine people. That, combined with the fact that its discoverers were amongst the first to develop a written language or one of the most famous astronomical systems known by man, should increase people’s trust in cocoa.
What is cocoa?
The cocoa tree is native to the tropical regions of Central and South America. Its seeds, the cocoa beans, are the tree’s most valuable part. They are used to make cocoa butter, cocoa powder and, last but not least, chocolate. The estimated cocoa production as of 2004 was 3.5 million tons, which is massive. It is therefore understandable how cocoa has become the primary ingredient in the billion dollar industry of chocolate.
Cocoa butter and cocoa powder are the two largest products made from the beans. After being extracted from the inside of the fleshy cocoa fruits, they go through a process in which they are fermented and roasted. They are then pressed in a hydraulic machinery. The solid cocoa nibs turn into a viscose liquid, the cocoa butter. The remaining solids are processed into cocoa powder. Cocoa butter is the main ingredient in chocolate. The cosmetic industry has put it to good use as well by introducing it in facial creams and skin moisturizers.
Cocoa powder is the other end product of the extraction process of cocoa beans. It is, alongside with the butter, the other key ingredient in all types of chocolate, be it the dark, white or milk one. Natural cocoa powder is light in color unlike what people tend to believe, given that most of the chocolate we find on the market is brown in color. The cocoa powder used in chocolate goes through an alkalization process which makes it both darker in color and less bitter in taste. The powder is that which offers cocoa its status as a super food. It contains minerals like copper, magnesium, zinc or iron, and high antioxidants such as polyphenols and flavonoids. The dark colored cocoa powder is poorer in antioxidants and minerals because it has gone through the alkalization method. The butter has its important constituents. While not as effective as the [powder, the butter plays a vital role. It consists of stearic, palmitic and oleic acids. Specialists deem it, alongside with milk and sugar, as the main culprit for chocolate’s renown as a high-calorie food.
According to the New York University’s Langone Medical Center, dark chocolate can prove to be beneficial in decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. White and milk chocolate on the other hand is only enough to satisfy our taste buds as they are almost depleted from vitamins and minerals. This is the result of higher cocoa powder levels present in dark chocolate.
Many specialists in general medicine and nutrition regard cocoa as a super food. this is not the consequence of it being acknowledged for its strong properties ever since the ancient Mayas have first planted it. Rather than that, it was a natural result of years of research on the subject. Flavanol (Flavan-3-ol) and polyphenol are two of cocoa’s primary antioxidants. Moreover, according to a study conducted on various food groups, cocoa powder registered the highest polyphenol level of the all. No wonder that mass-media is currently promoting its introduction in different recipes, from desserts to salads packed with vitamins.
- Polyphenols are a class of chemical compounds naturally occurring in plants, the medicinal ones in particular. Numerous research projects pointed towards their antioxidant properties. Experts stated that an abundance of these substances in the diet could prevent the risk of oxidative stress and various diseases linked to it. Oxidative stress is a damaging process, as it impedes the body’s ability to properly detoxify itself. Free radicals and toxins accumulate inside it and affect its well-being on a cellular level. Severe medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease and even cancer can occur in the absence of a proper defense mechanism. Polyphenols are efficient in the fight against oxidative stress. Moreover, the polyphenols present in cocoa powder are even stronger than those of acai or cranberry powder. The researchers have conducted these studies while using light colored cocoa powder which means that the antioxidant levels were higher than in the more used dark one. Processed cocoa powder was lower in efficacy, partly due to the alkalization process that seriously decreased its antioxidant quantity.
- Flavonoids are chemical compounds found in fruits and vegetables but also chocolate and tea. They have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Specialists consider them to be very efficient in regards to the body’s vascular and neuroprotective They are appreciated for their low bioavailability as well. This means that following an ingestion of foods rich in flavonoids the body digests them rather easily. They then reach the small intestine whose walls release them into the bloodstream. Cocoa’s main flavonoids are catechin and epicatechin. A study was done on the subject of a tea rich in catechin consumption and its effects on body weight. The conclusion showed that daily consumption of tea containing high catechin levels led to a reduction in body fat. Catechins are also efficient when it comes to the risk of oxidative stress. Even so, the flavonoids present in cocoa are not as powerful as other antioxidants. Many compounds bearing the name of flavonoids are only sub-classes with overall weaker capacities. Specialists in the domain are yet to conduct research on the subject of flavonoids as strong antioxidants. In spite of this, there is no doubt they can fight free radicals in their way.
- Methylxanthines include compounds such as theobromine, caffeine and theophylline. They are all present in the cocoa bean’s structure. Methylxanthines are chemically active substances and stimulate the nervous system by enhancing cerebral activity. They also improve cognition, memory and logical thinking. They have a bitter flavor if used in their natural state. Xanthines, substances similar to methylxanthines, are found in the tissues and fluids of the human body. Methylxanthines have a direct influence on the adenosine receptors of the central nervous system. These receptors are responsible for diminishing the rate of diverse metabolic activities. Methylxanthines block the adenosine receptors shortly after being released into the blood stream. One can notice an improvement in mood and concentration. The caffeine found in cocoa beans, while lower in quantity than theobromine, can still induce a mild state of arousal. Cocoa powder is very rich in theobromine. The possible side effects of caffeine are reduced to a minimum because of this. There are no current studies to indicate towards caffeine’s or theobromine’s ability to cause addiction.
- Minerals: Aside from antioxidants, cocoa is an excellent source of minerals as well
- Magnesium: cocoa is one of the most important magnesium sources, with 500 milligrams per 100 grams. It supports the heart and brain health and sustains a good digestive system. Magnesium is essential for the bone structure, fights toxins and positively influences the mood. Over 80% of Americans are chronically deficient in Magnesium. Cocoa powder can be efficient in solving this problem. Chocolate can prove to be rather ineffective unless it has a cocoa content of over 90%.
- Zinc: is important in maintaining a healthy immune system and the overall health of liver and pancreas. It also contributes to a nice looking skin by building proteins and creating DNA. Animal foods are better sources of zinc in the case of deficiency. Nonetheless, plant-based foods can be just as good in case one follows a vegetarian diet.
- Iron: Cocoa is the highest plant-based source of iron, containing 20% of the U.S. RDA of iron per ounce928 grams) serving. People can increase their intake f this mineral that is so vital for the body’s oxygenation by consuming cocoa-based Iron is part of the hemoglobin structure, the protein responsible for the blood’s health
- Chromium: normalizes the levels of sugar in the blood and directs it towards the cells as fats and carbohydrates for the body to use them as energy. Specialists advise people to avoid excessive consumption of chromium supplements as they can lead to hypoglycemia. Nearly 80% of Americans are deficient in Chromium
- Essential fatty acids: the fatty acids found in cocoa butter are the stearic, palmitic and oleic ones. Studies conducted in regards to the fatty acid levels present in cocoa showed that, although high, they did not raise the cholesterol. The palmitic acid however is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Also, during an experiment done on rats fed a diet of 20% palmitic acid and 80% carbohydrate showed damage on the rodents’ central nervous system control insulin secretion.
- Cadmium: research projects have shown high cadmium concentrations present in cocoa powder. Cadmium is metal toxic for the human body. Inhaling it for extended periods can lead to pulmonary edema and possibly death. Dark chocolate has lower quantities but only because it is the result of cocoa butter and powder being mixed. The lowest cadmium levels are present in white or milk chocolate, as both milk and sugar can make up a substantial portion of the chocolate.
Health benefits of cocoa
Leave aside cocoa’s role as the main ingredient in delicious desserts from all over the world. It is enough to state that specialists consider it to be one of the most valuable superfoods available for human consumption and one can clearly see how cocoa is extraordinarily beneficial for the body’s health. Ancient medicine people acknowledged its properties and took full advantage of them. Be it to treat mild cases of cardiovascular diseases, accelerate a wound’s healing process or maintain a delicate skin aspect, cocoa ca do them all. Here are the most popular health benefits of cocoa. Many of them are backed by scientific research.
Cardiovascular diseases appear as the unfortunate consequence of various mechanism negatively affecting the blood vessel structure and function. The first stage in the cardiovascular disease development is the occurrence of atherosclerosis. This medical condition takes place when a plaque consisting of cholesterol builds up inside the arteries, making them harder and more rigid. The arteries are responsible for carrying the oxygen-rich blood towards the heart and other inner organs. In time, the plaque narrows the arteries and impedes the blood flow. The restriction can lead to higher blood pressure and the presence of blood clots that can obstruct the artery.
Atherosclerosis does not affect the heart only. Arteries in the brain, arms and kidneys can suffer as well. The condition is linked to higher risks of heart attack, stroke or even death. Yet, Cocoa contains over 700 known compounds out of which its antioxidants remain the most important. Cocoa is rich in polyphenols and flavonoids, appreciated for their positive influence on cardiovascular health. Catechin and epicatechin have proven capacities in regards to lower cholesterol levels. Apples, onions and even red wine contain generous amounts of polyphenols. Cocoa manages to be at the top of the list being more efficient than most of them. The Department of Nutrition of the University of California conducted a study to show cocoa’s mechanism of action when faced with the possible cardiac disease. The participants were given a cocoa-based beverage. The results were the following:
- the tendency for platelets(small blood cells) to gather in tiny clusters and form clots was reduced
- In case of blood clots occurrence they took longer to develop
- Blood coagulation was decreased.
The British journal Age published a study on how cocoa’s flavanols benefit the blood vessels, thus lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.42 healthy men aged 35 to 80 were split into two groups and given either a flavonol- containing drink or a flavanol-free control drink twice a day for two weeks. The researchers stated that the group consuming flavanol drinks registered an improved vasodilatation and decreased blood pressure. Nutritionists advise people to introduce foods with high cocoa content in their diets. Regular intakes of cocoa sustain a good heart health.
Lower cholesterol levels
In March 2007 a group of Japanese researchers conducted an experiment to examine the effect of cocoa’s antioxidants on the cholesterol levels. For this, 25 healthy Japanese men were split into two groups. One of them was given a cocoa-based beverage to which they added sugar; the other group’s members drank a simple drink. The study went on for 12 consecutive weeks and showed major improvements in the first group which registered a rise in HDL or “good” cholesterol and a decrease in LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Moreover, men in the first group were less prone to the risk of oxidative stress due to cocoa’s polyphenols.
Cocoa butter does contain three types of fatty acids, oleic, stearic and palmitic. The last two are saturated fats which are linked to higher LDL cholesterol levels. Even so, the stearic acid is rather neutral and does not play a vital role in cocoa butter’s structure. The palmitic acid does increase the blood cholesterol but it makes up only one-third of the butter’s calories. In addition to that, chocolate is made of both cocoa butter and powder and many varieties contain sugar and milk as well. It would not be fair to assume that the palmitic acid is of such importance as to modify the cholesterol levels all by itself. Chocolate is deemed as harmful if consumed daily and in large quantities mainly because of the sugar that is digested rapidly by the stomach and absorbed into the blood stream. Cocoa in its powdered form is full of benefits. It becomes less efficient only after being processed because it loses much of its antioxidants.
Cocoa contains caffeine and theobromine, two substances that act directly on the central nervous system, more precisely on the adenosine receptors. These receptors slow down various metabolic processes. What caffeine and theobromine do is impede their usual activity and produce changes in regards to one’s mood and capacity to concentrate. In addition to these, the flavanols in cocoa are believed to enhance brain function by easing the blood flow towards the brain. Better brain activity is the result of an increased blood flow.
Cocoa consumption has been linked to a decreased risk of diabetes in people replacing high glycemic index foods with foods rich in cocoa content. Aside from normalizing the blood cholesterol, cocoa compounds regulate the sugar levels and enhance glucose metabolism. It also has positive effects on insulin resistance in that it increases the body’s sensitivity to it and the pancreas is no longer forced to produce more insulin than normal. Additional studies done on patients suffering from diabetes with regular intakes of flavanol-rich cocoa showed an improvement in the vascular function. Chocolate consumption on the other hand should be reduced to a minimum or absent from a diabetic’s diet.
Obesity is a serious medical condition which affects almost 40% of Americans and the rate will drastically increase by 2030. It can lead to type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even death if not treated in time. Obesity is characterized by an excessive fat accumulation which in turn causes a higher blood pressure. Researchers have done an experiment on rats fed with substances high in fat. They were then given significant cocoa powder quantities for three weeks. The results indicated towards a decreased body weight and modification in the activity of genes related to fatty acid metabolism. The researchers have noticed an improvement in thermogenesis as well.
Complementary and alternative medicines are increasing in popularity. Most people regard them as practical, harmless and efficient when it comes to various medical conditions and issues. Such is the case with wounds that medicine people have treated for centuries with the help of plants. Cocoa has alleged healing capacities so it was only natural to include it in all kinds of treatments. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can help eradicate Helicobacter pylori, bacteria linked to the risk of ulcers and cancer occurrence.
Aging is a normal process. Everybody goes through it and is prone to all sorts of changes both on the inside and outside. Wrinkles are one of the most visible signs of aging on the body. Whether they want to admit it or not, people will try even the craziest methods to stop their development. There is a reason why today’s cosmetics industry has such massive sales. But what if there exists a more natural way to diminish the fine lines and wrinkles? Recently, the use of cocoa powder has been related to an excellent skin aspect due to its compounds’ antioxidant properties. They can neutralize oxidative stress, one of the main factors that contribute to skin’s deterioration. Cocoa butter is efficient in preventing wrinkles as well. Its structure is greasy so it can easily be used as a moisturizer. It also improves the skin’s elasticity and sustains a healthy collagen levels as to maintain a youthful aspect. Cocoa butter is currently utilized in the preparation of skin care products.
Aside from the mentioned benefits, cocoa also provides relief from constipation when used in hot drinks), helps to treat copper and magnesium deficiency as well as neurodegenerative disorders. More research projects are to be conducted to establish cocoa’s role in the fights against cancer.
It ‘s nice to know that cocoa contains certain substances that may cause allergic reactions such as skin rashes, migraines, stomach aches and nausea. Also, chocolate, its processed counterpart, is high in calories and can cause addiction which can lead to diabetes, heart problems and obesity. People should reduce their chocolate intake and consume healthier alternatives.