Chocolate and Cocoa: A Review of All the Potential Health Benefits

Chocolate and Cocoa: A Review of All the Potential Health Benefits

Let’s talk about this really interesting study that was recently published. This study reviewed and interpreted research done in the last decade on the benefits and risks of chocolate consumption. The original article is linked at the end.

Some background here

Chocolate is the most commonly craved food in the world. Chocolate originated from Mexico where the Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs cultivated the cacao tree. In the past, due to its health effects, it was considered the drink of Gods, an association that gave rise to the scientific name of the cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, from the Greek words theo (God) and broma (drink).

Initially it was consumed as an aphrodisiac drink, but because of its high price, chocolate was later replaced by coffee and tea as the main drink. Chocolate has since become a favourite confection in most developed countries including Europe and North America. Nowadays cocoa is grown mainly in West Africa, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.

The tree and its dried seeds prior to processing are called ‘cacao’ in American English; after processing, i.e. roasting and grinding, the term ‘cocoa’ is used. ‘Chocolate’ is the food prepared from roasted cacao seeds.

Chemical compounds in chocolate that may affect human health

1. Fats - This is predominantly cocoa butter. It contains approximately 33% monounsaturated in the form of oleic acid and 60% saturated in the form of palmitic acid and stearic acid.

2. Antioxidants - Cocoa contains large concentrations of flavonoids, epicatechin, catechin, and procyanidins. Cocoa has the maximum levels of flavonoids, greater than even tea and wine.

3. Nitrogenous Compounds - include both proteins and the methylxanthines theobromine and caffeine. They are central nervous system stimulants, diuretics, and smooth muscle relaxants.

4. Minerals - contains minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, copper, iron, zinc, and magnesium.

Cocoa and Cardiovascular Disease

1. Rich source of antioxidants - Oxidative stress and reduced antioxidant defences play a pivotal role in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. However, there is evidence is not very strong regarding the direct antioxidant potential of chocolate.

2. Blood pressure lowering effects - In a dutch study of men aged 65-84, men who consumed cocoa regularly had significantly lower blood pressure than those who did not. Consumption of dark chocolate has been reported to reduce systolic blood pressure in healthy subjects as well as in young and elderly hypertensive patients. However, there are other studies that do not show significant reductions in blood pressures, and overall, the evidence is mixed.

3. Effects on blood vessels and nitric oxide - Numerous studies have reported that cocoa causes significant vasodilatation by increasing serum NO levels and endothelial NO bioavailability.

4. Inhibits platelet activation - Cocoa has aspirin-like effects on platelet function, and the joint effects of the cocoa and aspirin are additive in nature, suggesting improved clot prevention afforded by cocoa.

Cocoa and Diabetes

A reduction in insulin resistance and an increase in insulin sensitivity were observed after ingestion of flavonol-rich chocolate in healthy subjects and hypertensive patients.

Another study demonstrated a positive impact on glucose and insulin responses to an oral glucose tolerance test, in hypertensive adults with impaired glucose tolerance following flavonol-rich chocolate ingestion.

Cocoa and Stress

A study in Switzerland also confirmed that chocolate alleviates stress. Following 14 days of dark chocolate ingestion, stress parameters in the adults exhibiting high anxiety profiles became comparable with the low-stress subjects.

Cocoa and Obesity

In a study an identical high fat diet, with or without cocoa, was fed to rats for three weeks. Cocoa consumption led to a significant decrease in total body weight, mesenteric white adipose tissue weight and serum triglycerides.

Cocoa and Neurology

A recent study of young, healthy subjects using magnetic resonance imaging found that cocoa intake results in increased cerebral blood flow, suggesting that cocoa might play a role in treatment of cerebral conditions such as dementia and stroke. Other studies have shown improved cognitive performance.

Cocoa and Cancer

A few in vitro studies suggest that cocoa inhibits the growth of cancerous cells. The exact anticancer mechanisms are not clearly understood. On the other hand, some studies suggest that excess chocolate intake makes a person more prone to develop cancers. More research is needed because the data is not clear.

Cocoa and Anti-Inflammation

Chocolate inhibits lipoxygenase pathways, by directly binding to the active sites of the enzymes lipoxygenases.

Cocoa and Exercise Recovery

It has been documented that chocolate supplementation before exercise results in rapid recovery of post-exercise physiological and metabolic changes.

Negative Effects of Consumption

Increased heartburn. Increased risk of obesity, especially in highly processed versions containing large amounts of sugar and trans fats. Some individuals may develop allergies.

Original Article

Latif, R. Chocolate/cocoa and human health: a review. Neth J Med. 2013 Mar; 71(2):63-8.

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