Cocoa: a functional ingredient with health-promoting benefits
The cacao fruit is mostly grown in West Africa, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.1,4 Foods rich in cocoa include cocoa butter, cocoa beans, cocoa powder, and dark chocolate.6 The latter is derived from combining cocoa liquor with cocoa butter, and sugar.7 In the past, the consumption of chocolate has been associated with acne, tooth decay, obesity, high blood pressure, coronary artery diseases, and diabetes.1 Research has, however, found that there are many health-benefits derived from cocoa. In fact, according to Latif, chocolate, the world’s most desired food, is now considered a medicine due to its rich cocoa content.1
Benefits of cocoa and dark chocolate:
Antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins
Cocoa comprises large amounts of flavonoids, epicatechin, catechin, and procyanidins. Dark chocolate has a higher number of flavonoids particularly in comparison to milk and white chocolate. In fact, flavonoids may also be greater in dark chocolate since the milk in milk and white chocolate may cause the intestinal absorption of flavonoids to slow down.1
Cocoa additionally houses essential minerals and vitamins such as potassium, phosphorus, copper, iron, zinc, magnesium and valeric acid.1
Decrease in stress levels and better quality of life
Serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter, is produced when cocoa is consumed, reducing stress levels.1 In fact, a study that was based on the consumption of dark chocolate over a 14-day period concluded that stress levels in its adult participants with high anxiety profiles became similar to adults with low stress.1
Methylxanthines in cocoa (mostly caffeine and theobromine) are linked to psychoactive properties that result in a better daily life as it enhances arousal, mood and concentration levels.2 The main psychological effects of methylxanthines include efficient thinking, diuresis, cardiovascular and metabolic effects, bronchial relaxation and increased secretion of gastric acids.2
Reduced risk of diabetes
Insulin sensitivity is partially dependant on nitric oxide (NO) bioavailability in the body’s endothelial cells. Flavonol, found in cocoa, may reduce insulin resistance by enhancing NO bioavailability, thus increasing insulin sensitivity.1 High insulin sensitivity is important as it enables the body’s cells to use blood glucose more effectively, reducing blood sugar levels.3
Reduction in high blood pressure
A number of studies have been conducted on young and elderly hypertensive patients who consume dark chocolate on a daily basis. These have found that the consumption of dark chocolate decreases blood pressure levels.1,4 The exact factors behind the antihypertensive effects of chocolate are not yet understood but it is suggested that the flavonol in dark chocolate plays a role.1
Beneficial for exercise and recovery
Dark chocolate has been found to improve exercise capacity.5 It has been suggested by Kelishadi that this rich cocoa food should be consumed before exercise to enhance the exercise and its recovery through the body’s glucose levels. 4
Theobromine for increased oral health
Studies have found a consistent and remarkable protection of the enamel on human third molars due to the theobromine found in chocolate, due to its cocoa content.2
Those who enjoy chocolate may consume a maximum of about 57 grams of dark chocolate per day to gain the health benefits from cocoa as mentioned above.1 However, they will need to increase their daily exercise or reduce their intake of other fats, sweets or carbohydrates to compensate the amounts in the consumed chocolate.
Latif, R., 2013. Chocolate/cocoa and human health: a review. Neth J Med, 71(2), pp.63-8.
Franco, R., Oñatibia-Astibia, A. and Martínez-Pinilla, E., 2013. Health benefits of methylxanthines in cacao and chocolate. Nutrients, 5(10), pp.4159-4173.
Kelishadi, R., 2005. Cacao to cocoa to chocolate: healthy food?. ARYA atherosclerosis journal, 1(1).
Taub, P.R., Ramirez-Sanchez, I., Patel, M., Higginbotham, E., Moreno-Ulloa, A., Román-Pintos, L.M., Phillips, P., Perkins, G., Ceballos, G. and Villarreal, F., 2016. Beneficial effects of dark chocolate on exercise capacity in sedentary subjects: underlying mechanisms. A double blind, randomized, placebo controlled trial. Food & function, 7(9), pp.3686-3693.