Cocoa Health Benefits
Learn about growing and harvesting chocolate
Cocoa and health
The cocoa plant is a unique Central and South American native species, which has grown in popularity across the globe since European discovery in the early 16th century.
Cocoa has exceptional health properties ranging from increased vitamin and mineral consumption to cardiovascular disease prevention.
Of course, the type of cocoa plant, the conditions and method in which it was grown, and the processing methods used to produce the final cocoa or chocolate product, all play a significant role in just how healthy the cocoa is for you.
Hint: The better quality cocoa, the better it is for you.
Cocoa Bean Cultivation for Health
When it comes to the health benefits of cocoa, organic is the only way to go.
Because the cocoa plant is so susceptible to disease and insects, non-organic cocoa is heavily sprayed with pesticides that leach into the cocoa beans and end up in your cocoa product.
The cocoa butter inside the cocoa beans is where most of these pesticides retain, but with heavily sprayed cocoa trees, it's not uncommon to find traces of synthetic chemicals in every part of the tree, cocoa pod and bean.
Health benefit number #1 of quality cocoa: Avoiding the synthetic poisons.
Type of Cocoa Plant
The type of cocoa plant also plays a role in how nutritious cocoa is.
The common “forastero” bean, which is cultivated across Asia, Africa, and makes up 80 - 90% of the cocoa consumed in the world. While it is lacking in authenticity, quality and flavor, it makes up for it in practicality and cost to produce, which is why it is most commonly used in mass-produced cocoa and chocolate products.
The rarest form of cocoa, the criollo bean, is even more susceptible to disease, which makes them a prime candidate for pesticides. Of course, most criollo is so expensive to produce that you usually find it only in expensive organic chocolate products.
Dutch Processing and Chemical Changes
Since 1828 much of the cocoa powder processed in the western world has gone through "Dutch processing."
Cocoa powder that has not been dutched is referred to as "natural cocoa."
The dutch process involves washing cocoa powder with a potassium carbonate solution to improve alkalinity and produce less bitter tasting cocoa. While this makes chocolate taste better, it also makes chocolate less healthy.
A 2008 study found that Dutch processing had a significant impact on the antioxidant value of cocoa powder, which is arguably the most unique and important part. Antioxidant levels of processed cocoa powder:
- 39.9% antioxidants with lightly processed cocoa powder
- 22.5% antioxidants with moderately processed cocoa powder
- 11.2% antioxidants with heavily processed cocoa powder
Flavonoids and Antioxidants in Cocoa
One of the primary benefits of cocoa is the high flavonoid and antioxidant content.
These natural microchemicals help improve markers of health and are found in a variety of foods, such as green and black tea, coffee and blueberries, to name a few.
Cocoa has a unique flavonoid profile, which makes it highly valuable. A 2015 study showed that flavanol consumption improved cognitive function, blood pressure control and metabolic profile in elderly subjects.
The antioxidants in cocoa help reduce signs of aging due to the cocoa polyphenols stimulating cell survival and preventing cellular death. By promoting cell health, not only can these cells last longer, but they can also be more resistant to cancer.
Cocoa and Cardiovascular Disease
The antioxidants and flavonoids in cocoa help to impart cardiovascular benefits that can help prevent the disease altogether.
One Harvard Medical School study focused on the island Kuna people from Panama who consume cocoa heavily.
Compared to mainlanders who consumed little to no cocoa, the Kuna were far less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
Markers and byproducts of cardiovascular disease, such as cholesterol and blood pressure, have also seen marked improvement through cocoa consumption. Long term cocoa consumers reduced LDL (bad cholesterol) and cocoa powder was found to reduce blood pressure better than black or green tea, which are traditionally considered unique and antioxidant rich.
Brain Health and Cognitive Benefits of Cocoa
The antioxidants and chemical compounds in cocoa have shown in numerous studies to be beneficial for brain health and cognitive function.
Stimulants like theobromine and caffeine provide much needed boosts in attention and concentration in the short term.
Using blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) contrast imaging, one study found cocoa powder increased blood flow to the brain by up to 40%. This lead to better learning capabilities, memory, and even physical reaction times.
Beyond memory and learning, cocoa powder has strong stress-reducing and mood enhancing properties.
By influencing the production of brain chemical serotonin, cocoa enables one to have a better mood and reduce feelings of anxiety and worry.
No wonder we reach for the chocolate when we are feeling down!