The health benefits of cocoa include relief from high blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity, constipation, diabetes, bronchial asthma, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome and various neurodegenerative diseases. It is beneficial for quick wound healing, skin care, and it helps to improve cardiovascular health and brain health. It also helps in treating copper deficiency. It possesses mood-enhancing properties and exerts protective effects against neurotoxicity.
Cocoa beans are the fermented seeds of the cacao tree, whose Latin name is Theobroma cacao, which means “Food of the Gods”. Cocoa is native to the Amazon region and as the meaning suggests, cocoa was historically considered a very important crop in Central and South America. In fact, the beans of cocoa were so prized that the native tribes used them as a form of currency. The cacao tree stands about 12-25 feet tall and grows naturally in tropical climates.
The fruit of the cocoa tree is a pod full of sweet pulp enfolding a cluster of about 20-40 cacao seeds. Today, cocoa is produced across the world, with about forty percent of the harvesting done in Cote d’Ivoire, along with Indonesia, Ghana, Brazil, Nigeria and Cameroon contributing to the overall production. Along with its well established role in the manufacturing of chocolate, the healing and medicinal benefits of cocoa have been appreciated since the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations were ruling their continent.
Cocoa and chocolate are diverse terminologies. Cocoa refers to the low-fat constituent of the finely ground cocoa beans. These ground cocoa beans, known as cocoa liquor or cocoa mass, also contains cocoa butter which is a non-dairy, naturally occurring fat present in cocoa beans. About 50-60% of cocoa liquor consists of cocoa butter.
Nutritional Value of Cocoa
Cocoa is rich in minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, phosphorous, copper and manganese. It is also a good source of selenium, potassium, and zinc while providing the body with carbohydrates, protein, and dietary fiber. In addition to this, the cholesterol content in cocoa is almost negligible. Cocoa contains cocoa butter, which is a mixture of monounsaturated fats like oleic acid and saturated fats, namely stearic acid and palmitic acid.
Cocoa is a lot more than just a guilty pleasure!
Cocoa offers anti-inflammatory, anti-allergenic, anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant qualities and has demonstrated positive effects by imparting numerous health benefits.
Blood pressure: Flavonoid-rich cocoa aids in lowering blood pressure and improving the elasticity of blood vessels. Research studies conducted on this subject have shown positive changes in the systolic and diastolic blood pressure as a consequence of consuming cocoa-based products instead of black and green tea. These favorable changes are attributed to the presence of antioxidants in cocoa that stimulates the production of nitric oxide, which helps to keep blood vessels relaxed. Furthermore, this helps in maintaining a healthy circulatory system.
Antioxidant Capacity: A comparative research study has made it evident that cocoa exhibits higher antioxidant activity than against black tea, green tea and red wine. Antioxidants helps to neutralize the oxygen-based free radicals that are present in the body. In addition to this, cocoa is abundant in phenolic phytochemicals and possesses a high amount of flavonoids as well.
Brain Health: Scientists have suggested that flavonol-rich cocoa may extend its beneficial effects to maintaining a healthy brain. These neuroprotective benefits could also have favorable effects on learning and memory functions. The findings have advocated that the consumption of cocoa-based products enhances the flow of blood to the brain and they have provided evidence of the therapeutic potential for curing vascular disorders.
Blood Cholesterol: An investigative research study has shown that cocoa has hypoglycemic and hypocholesterolemic effects on both glucose and cholesterol levels, respectively. A diet containing cocoa has also shown a reduction in triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and glucose level. It has also demonstrated a noteworthy rise in the levels of healthy HDL cholesterol in the test subjects.
Diabetes: The consumption of cocoa has been shown to be effective in improving insulin resistance and glucose metabolism. This, in turn, aids in regulating sugar levels in the body. The proanthocyanidins derived from cocoa help in inhibiting the cataract formation occasionally induced by diabetes. An investigative study has confirmed that cocoa exerts protective antioxidant activity in the treatment of long term diabetic complications such as diabetic nephrotoxicity. Nephrotoxicity plays a key role in diabetes mellitus and it is the major cause of severe renal disease. Free radicals aggravate these diabetic complications by promoting oxidative stress, leading to cell and tissue damage. The free radical scavenging activity of cocoa has shown therapeutic effects in treating and preventing this sort of cellular injury. The findings of another research study suggests that the consumption of flavonol-rich cocoa has shown therapeutic potential in improving the vascular function of diabetics on various medications.
Bronchial Asthma: Cocoa beans contain xanthine and theophylline, which aid in relaxing bronchial spasms and opening constricted bronchial tubes. This facilitates an easy flow of air and is valuable in curing various allergies, including asthma and shortness of breath. Consumption of cocoa therefore helps in providing relief from bronchial asthma.
Wound Healing: Cocoa extracts have been trusted for their therapeutic and wound-healing properties in the manufacturing of natural medicinal products. Cocoa extracts help in preventing the development of various kinds of infections in the body. Along with the appropriate medication, cocoa has also been considered helpful in eradicating Helicobacter pylori bacteria from the body.
Obesity: A study has shown the potential benefits of cocoa in preventing high-fat diet-induced obesity. The consumption of cocoa helps in modulating lipid metabolism and reducing the synthesis and transport of fatty acids. It has also demonstrated an improvement in thermogenesis, the mechanism of heat production in white adipose tissues and the liver.
Cardiovascular Health: Studies have shown that cocoa exerts beneficial effects on cardiovascular health as well. Cocoa is rich in flavonoids namely, procyanidin, catechin, and epicatechin, which have antioxidant properties and help in protecting the cells from damage while strengthening the heart. It also aids in improving endothelial function and stimulating the beneficial HDL cholesterol. Cocoa helps in preventing the formation of fatal blood clots, which can lead to stroke or cardiac failure. Blood platelets play an important role in cardiovascular disorders. Flavonoids present in cocoa possess anti-platelet aggregating effects and modulate primary hemostasis, which is the measure of time blood takes to clot. All these health effects help in preventing the proliferation of various medical conditions like atherosclerosis and thrombosis, which are some of the prime causes of more serious cardiovascular diseases.
Mood Enhancer: Consuming cocoa has shown antidepressant-like effects on certain physiological processes. Studies have shown that cocoa flavonols help to enhance mood, combat depression, and promote improved cognitive activities during persistent mental exertion. The presence of the neurochemical phenylethylamine in cocoa also helps in enhancing feelings of contentment and promoting aphrodisiac effects.
Constipation: Research studies have demonstrated that the consumption of cocoa husk exerts therapeutic effects in treating chronic constipation and bowel function diseases. As per the study done on pediatric patients, consumption of fiber-rich cocoa products resulted in faster colonic, rectal and intestinal transit times. Another study also advocated that regular consumption of cocoa products have shown to encourage better bowel function by reduction in time to have bowel movements, increase the frequency of bowel movements, and make a softer consistency of stool without inducing any other side effects like gastrointestinal discomfort or abdominal pain.
Cancer: Cocoa has demonstrated beneficial effects in inhibiting the growth of cancer cells without effecting the growth of normal healthy cells. Studies have provided evidence regarding the chemopreventive and anti-proliferative qualities exerted by the flavonols and procyanidins present in cocoa. These healing effects have proven extremely valuable in the treatment of various types of cancer, including colon cancer and prostate cancer.
Copper Deficiency: Cocoa extends its benefits to treating copper deficiency in patients on long-term enteral nutrition. Research studies have revealed that cocoa is quite valuable in copper substitution therapy, and has resulted in significant improvements in the hemoglobin level, leucocyte count, and copper content in such patients. According to the findings, cocoa is considered valuable as a copper-rich component to be included in the diet to maintain normal levels of copper as well as a remedy for treating copper deficiency in such conditions. It helps in preventing and treating the diseases caused due to copper deficiency in the body such as anemia, neutropenia and leukopenia.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Cocoa has been shown to exert calming effects on people suffering from chronic fatigue. The attenuating effects of cocoa is attributed to the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin, anandamide and phenylethylamine in the brain, which exert protective effects from oxidative stress on the neuronal cells and helps in combating chronic fatigue syndrome.
Skin Care: Cocoa has also been found to be effective in maintaining good skin health. Research findings suggest that the consumption of flavonol-rich cocoa helps in decreasing the effects of UV- induced erythema and reducing skin roughness and scaling. It also aids in enhancing skin elasticity, hydration, and density. Another study confirmed that epicatechin present in cocoa aids in elevating the oxygen saturation of hemoglobin, stimulating the healthy flow of blood in the dermal tissues, and contributing to endogenous photo-protection. Cocoa is used in the preparation of various skin care products.
Neurodegenerative Disorders: The presence of major flavonols like epicatechin and catechin in cocoa has shown beneficial effects in treating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Research findings suggest that these phytochemicals have synergistic qualities, which aid in reducing the oxidative stress on the mind. This helps in preventing neuronal cell damage and exerts a protective effect on the cellular membrane against cytotoxicity.
Magnesium Deficiency: Another benefit of cocoa products is their role in preventing the ill effects of a magnesium deficiency in the body. An investigative research study has confirmed that the regular consumption of cocoa products may prove beneficial in preventing the adverse effects caused due to a diet lacking in magnesium for an extended period of time.
Cocoa – A Culinary Gift: Cocoa has been treasured worldwide for its usage in the manufacturing of chocolate and other sweet delicacies. Cocoa beans are roasted, husked, ground and, depending on the desired product, sweetened and flavored to produce chocolate. Several types of chocolate are produced from cocoa beans, including unsweetened chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate. Cocoa butter is also used as a substitute for gelatin to enhance the flavor and aroma of food. Cocoa butter has a melting point below the human body temperature, so it melts and provides a smooth and creamy taste to many preparations to make them even more palatable. These benefits make cocoa butter a healthy, plant-based alternative to include in recipes, rather than gelatin, which is derived from animal by-products.
Other Uses of Cocoa
Cocoa bean mulch: Cocoa mulch is a by-product and is produced from the discarded shells of cocoa beans. Mulch is valuable in efforts to reduce weeds, regulate the temperature of the soil, prevent soil erosion, and increase the nutritive value of the soil. Roasting cocoa beans releases its shells which are further used to produce cocoa mulch. Cocoa mulch is rich in naturally available macro-nutrients such as potassium, phosphorous and nitrogen, all of which are valuable for plant health. Cocoa beans have water retention capability due to which it is also capable of impeding fire.
Cocoa – An Important Word of Caution
Caffeine: Cocoa is a source of caffeine. However, the consumption of excess caffeine can lead to various side effects such as increased urination, sleeplessness, and irregular heartbeat. Excess caffeine can also aggravate the conditions of people already suffering from anxiety disorders or diarrhea. Excess amounts of caffeine during breast feeding can result in crankiness and abdominal discomfort in infants. Cocoa may also worsen the condition of gastro-esophaegeal reflux disease and it is advised to be avoided prior to surgeries to avoid any interference with blood sugar control.
Allergic Reactions: Cocoa can cause allergic reactions to those who possess a sensitivity towards it. Allergies include skin reactions, migraine headaches, digestive discomfort like gas, and nausea.
Drug Interactions: Caffeine may influence the effects of certain medications prescribed before the diagnostic test that are associated with the heart. It is generally advised to avoid caffeine-rich beverages or foods before such cardiac examinations. Cocoa may interact with certain medications including clozaril, dipyridamole, ergotamine, phenylpropanolamine and theophylline and influence their effects on the body. In addition to this, cocoa might also interact with the drugs for asthma, depression and diabetes. Consult your doctor before adding a new type of food, especially one with so many unique compounds, into your diet.
In addition to cocoa beans, the therapeutic utilization of cacao bark, butter and flowers have also been valued since ancient times for treating various diseases like skin ailments, bowel malfunction and wounds. Commercially available chocolates and cocoa-products may not be rich in the original beneficial flavonols of cocoa beans, since they might get destroyed by over-processing. In order to obtain the benefits of cocoa, it is important to consume the correct source of cocoa. A small piece of dark, unsweetened or unprocessed chocolate may be considered to add some flavor and health to your diet.
So enjoy some chocolate! A guilt-free, heavenly, flavorful and beneficial bite of cocoa is good for everyone!