Cocoa powder is produced using beans harvested from the cacao tree whose name, Theobroma cacao, means ‘food of the Gods’.
Residue in ancient pots suggests the Mayans were drinking cocoa over 2,600 years ago. The Aztecs also used ground, dried cacao beans to make a sweetened concoction which they seasoned with vanilla, chilli pepper, honey or fruit and served with little whipping sticks to form a froth. This was called chicolatl, or ‘beaten drink’ from which the modern name of chocolate derives. Drinking chicolatl was believed to increase wisdom, boost energy levels and have a powerful aphrodisiac action.
Modern researchers now recognise that cocoa polyphenols have beneficial effects on the circulation, dilating blood vessels to lower blood pressure and boost the supply of oxygen and nutrients to rejuvenate organs and cells.
How cocoa powder is made
Cacao beans are fermented, dried and roasted to develop their flavours, before husking to remove their shells. The resulting roasted nibs are then ground, during which the heat of friction causes the cacao butter to melt to form a slurry-like liquor. Filters and high pressure are then used to separate the butter from the solids. The butter is used to make chocolates, while the pressed cake is finely ground to produce cocoa powder.
Raw cacao powder is made in a similar way but without roasting, to produce a lighter coloured powder that retains the maximum level of antioxidants.
Cocoa is a rich source of antioxidant polyphenols
Cocoa solids contain more antioxidants than just about any other food. Unlike the flavanols found in green tea and red wine, which link together in twos or threes, many of those found in cocoa form longer polymers of five to ten units. This gives cocoa, cacao and dark chocolate unique, beneficial health properties.
A small, 40g bar of dark chocolate typically provides over 300mg of flavanol polyphenols, while a typical cocoa powder provides 500mg flavanols per 100g weight. One brand, Aduna Super-Cacao, provides eight times as much – an extraordinary 4000mg flavanol polyphenols per 100g cacao powder. As a result, Aduna Super-Cacao is the first cocoa powder with approved EU health claims that it contributes to cardiovascular health, elasticity of arteries and blood circulation.
Cocoa powder is also a good source of minerals, including calcium, copper, magnesium and zinc.
Cocoa and weight loss
Many people who want to lose weight avoid eating chocolate or drinking cocoa. This is not necessarily a good idea.
Although chocolate and cocoa provide a shed load of calories, studies consistently show that people who drink cocoa or eat chocolate do not have a higher weight or Body Mass Index than those who do not. In fact, it seems that people who consume cocoa or chocolate frequently have a lower body mass index even though chocolate intakes is linked to consuming more calories overall. These findings are not affected by activity level or other obvious confounding factors.
Cocoa polyphenols appear to stimulate muscle metabolism by increasing the size, activity and number of energy-producing organelles (mitochondria) present in skeletal muscle fibres. This mimics the effects of regular exercise, to boost fat burning and increase lean muscle mass and can lead to weight loss despite eating more calories.
In a study involving around a thousand healthy adults, those who ate the most chocolate had a greater intake of calories over all, yet had a lower Body Mass Index at all ages and for both men and women. The level of exercise taken did not change these results.
Similar results were found in a group of 1458 teenagers, in whom higher chocolate consumption was associated with lower levels of total and central fat, BMI, and waist circumference, regardless of other factors such as age, stage of puberty, total energy intake, amount of fruit, vegetables, tea or coffee consumed, or level of exercise.
Researchers believe that, in addition to the fat-burning effects of cocoa in muscle cells, its beneficial effects on weight are also linked to improved insulin sensitivity, and possibly through neutralising the effects of the stress hormone, cortisol.
The smell of cocoa suppresses appetite
Just inhaling the unique scent of cocoa can reduce your desire for food. When a group of women were asked to sniff dark chocolate (30g containing 85% cocoa solids and 3.75g of sugar) or to let it melt in their mouth before swallowing, both eating dark chocolate and smelling it suppressed appetite to a similar degree. Blood hormone tests suggest that chocolate aromas stimulate olfactory sensors that, in turn, suppress the secretion of ghrelin – an intestinal hormone that is one of the main stimulators of appetite.
Cocoa and your brain
It’s said that Einstein ate chocolate while formulating his Theory of Relativity, and according to the New England Journal of Medicine, countries with the highest chocolate consumption produce more Nobel Prize winners per head of population than those eating the least.
Magnetic resonance imaging studies suggest that have now found that drinking cocoa rich in flavanols (150mg cocoa flavanols per day for 5 days) boosts blood flow to key parts of the brain involved in cognition to improve performance and alertness. A single dose of 450mg cocoa flavanols boosts cerebral blood flow to gray matter for two to three hours, and may have potential in treating dementias.
Cocoa antioxidants also neutralise the low-grade inflammation which is associated with ‘foggy’ thoughts.
In a recent study, a group of 90 healthy people in their 70s were asked to drink a mug of cocoa, every day, for 8 weeks. A third drank a high flavanol cocoa (993 mg per sachet), another third drank a moderate flavanol cocoa (520mg flavanols) while the rest drank a low flavanol cocoa (48mg). Participants completed memory and verbal fluency tests before and after the trial, and there was a clear, dose-response effect, with those drinking the high flavanol cocoa showing significantly greater improvements in memory and verbal reasoning than those drinking the moderate or low dose cocoa. Researchers now suspect that cocoa extracts may offer some protection against Alzheimer’s dementia.
Cocoa and blood pressure
The Kuna islanders who live off the coast of Panama do not develop high blood pressure as they age, and this is partly attributed to the large quantities of cocoa they consume every day. This protection is lost when they migrate to Panama City and no long follow the same cocoa enriched diet.
Cocoa polyphenols increase the availability of nitric oxide in blood vessel linings causing blood vessels to dilate. Data from 10 studies involving around 300 healthy people with either normal or mild hypertension showed that drinking flavanol-rich cocoa significantly lowers blood pressure by an average of 4.5/2.5 mmHg compared with a flavanol-free placebo drink. Read more about dietary approaches to lowering a high blood pressure at MyLowerBloodPressure.com.
Cocoa and cholesterol balance
Cocoa was tested for its effects on cholesterol levels in 20 people with raised cholesterol and 24 healthy volunteers. Each was asked to consume two servings (15 g each) of cocoa powder per day for 4 weeks in a fibre-enriched milk drink, or a plain milk control. In those drinking the cocoa, levels of ‘good’ HDL-cholesterol significantly increased to improve overall cholesterol balance. They also showed beneficial improvements in glucose control and anti-inflammatory effects without causing weight gain. Similar results were found in people with type 2 diabetes.
Cocoa polyphenols also inhibit oxidation of ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol by 75% – significantly better than red wine which inhibits LDL oxidation by 37-65%.
Cocoa and heart disease
Cocoa polyphenols dilate coronary arteries and improve their elasticity to reduce the risk of a heart attack.
Cocoa polyphenols also have an aspirin-like action to prevent platelet clumping and unwanted blood clots – an effect that lasts for at least 6 hours after drinking a single mug of cocoa providing 18.75g polyphenols.
Among a group of 470 men in The Netherlands, who were followed for 15 years, those who consumed the most cocoa (over 2.25grams per day, with an average intake of 4.18 grams per day) were half as likely to die from a heart attack, stroke, or any medical cause compared to those who consumed the least (less than 0.5grams per day).
When data from seven studies, involving over 114,000 people, was analysed, this showed that both men and women with the highest intake of cocoa/dark chocolate were 37% less likely to experience coronary heart disease and 29% less likely to experience a stroke than those with the lowest intakes.
The EPIC-Norfolk cancer trial involving almost 21,000 men and women, also found that people who ate the most chocolate had a 23% lower risk of heart attack or stroke over the 11 year follow-up period than those who ate no chocolate at all.
Another study that followed 37,000 men in Sweden for 10 years, found that high cocoa/chocolate consumption (average 62.9g per week) was associated with a 17% lower risk of stroke.
Cocoa and skin
Regular cocoa consumption helps to protect the skin from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation, to reduce premature skin ageing. In women with existing photo-ageing and visible facial wrinkles, those who drank cocoa containing 320 mg flavanols per day for 24 weeks had significantly improved skin quality than women drinking a placebo beverage with no cocoa flavanols. Wrinkle depth reduced, and skin roughness and elasticity were improved by around 8.7%
The evidence is clear – drinking cocoa is definitely good for your heart, circulation, brain and skin. It can even be good for your weight, as long as you avoid adding lots of sugar and cream.
After drinking cocoa, blood concentrations of the beneficial flavanols peak after one hour then slowly decrease over the following six hours. Spacing out flavanol rich foods such as chocolate every four to six hours will help to provide more even blood levels. What more excuse do you need to enjoy cocoa at least once a day?
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