Cocoa’s history goes back to 2000BC when the bean grew in the Amazon. The Mayans and Aztecs were the first to really embrace cocoa, consuming it as a bitter drink with added spices which they believed boosted fertility, strength, knowledge and even had mystical powers. Cocoa was even referred to as the ‘food of the Gods’ and was also used as currency.
Christopher Columbus brought cocoa back to Europe with him, but it was the Spanish who began adding milk and sugar to the original drink in the 1500’s, 300 years before solid chocolate was made in the UK by J.S Fry. The rest is history and chocolate became the fat and sugar junk bomb that we associate it with today.
It turns out that cocoa in its pure form has surprising health benefits. Indeed the Kuna Indians just off Panama indulge regularly, yet have six times less incidence of heart attack, 17 times less incidence of stroke and 18 times less incidence of cancer than people living in mainland Panama.
1) It has over 300 nutritional compounds including calcium, sulphur, zinc, iron, copper, potassium, manganese, and B vitamins, plus cocoa is has one of the highest concentrations of magnesium (which helps build bones and relaxes tight muscles) of any food.
2) Cocoa is very high in antioxidants including flavonoids such as quercetin and epicatechin. Cocoa has an exceptionally high ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) score of 13,120 per 100g, compared to blueberries which have a score of 2,400 per 100g
3) Cocoa improves cholesterol markers. A study in which 23 people were given 22g cocoa powder and 16g dark chocolate a day had an increase in LDL (the ‘good’) cholesterol compared to the control group. In addition, oxidation (which is not good for health) of this cholesterol was delayed by 8% in the people who consumed the cocoa.
4) Lowered blood pressure. People who consume cocoa regularly have, in a meta analysis of 10 studies, been shown to have lower blood pressure than people who do not consume cocoa, with numbers of up to 4.5 Hg lower systolic reading.
5) In a study in the International Journal of Cardiology, One group or people ate 45g dark chocolate and another group ate 35g of white chocolate. The dark chocolate eaters had significantly better coronary blood flow than the white chocolate eaters.
6) Amino acids such as phenylethylamine and tryptophan boost energy and brain function, aid relaxation, and elevate mood.
7) Cocoa boosts levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter derived from Tryptophan. Serotonin is a key regulator of mood and can improve depression.
8) Cocoa stimulates digestive enzymes, making digestion of other foods easier and potentially easing symptoms such as bloating, indigestion and other digestive complaints.
9) Cocoa is an aphrodisiac, in part due to its effects on ‘happy’ chemicals such as serotonin, coupled with the naturally occurring slight caffeine boost.
10) It can be an appetite suppressant in some people and inhibits cravingsfor sugar. This applies to pure cocoa only – sugary chocolate has the opposite effect!
Dutch processed cocoa, whilst looking and tasting darker and richer than unprocessed cocoa, has far fewer beneficial flavonoids than lighter looking raw cocoa. Choose the least processed you can find, and if it’s organic then even better.
Solid chocolate should be at least 70% cocoa and less than 10g sugar per serving. Pure chocolate (100% cacao mass) is much more bitter but if it’s a chocolate hit you’re looking for rather than a sweet taste then this is worth buying – many online health stores stock it.
Milk chocolate contains much less cocoa overall as well as more sugar. In addition, milk blocks the flavonoids’ beneficial actions, so cocoa is best consumed not at the same time as dairy products.
As with any food or ingredient, you can have too much of a good thing and if you’re adding chocolate to every meal and snack you could be missing out on other nutrients or find that the caffeine in cocoa makes you jittery, so don’t go overboard and use cocoa’s health benefits to go into an all out chocolate binge.
There are many ways you can include cocoa in your diet; add a tbsp. to protein shakes or smoothies, mix some into pancake batter before cooking, combine with no-added sugar peanut butter for a healthier spread, or get creative and make healthier versions of brownies and cookies using coconut flour, mashed fruit, ground nuts and maple syrup or stevia.
I’d love to hear your favourite recipes so please feel free to share them in the comments box below. Or if you need help making your fave chocolate recipe healthier post that too and I’ll give it a healthy makeover!