Cocoa Powder Power

Written By:
Colleen Morrison
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“Dark chocolate is good for your heart! It’s good for your brain! It energizes you!” Too often we hear about the health benefits of dark chocolate without much explanation of why it is good. These reports are not just a way to make us feel better about the sweets we ingest. So, what is it about dark chocolate that has nutrition enthusiasts so excited? It turns out it is not the sugary milk chocolate bar we can thank; it’s cocoa.

“Dark chocolate is good for your heart! It’s good for your brain! It energizes you!” Too often we hear about the health benefits of dark chocolate without much explanation of why it is good. These reports are not just a way to make us feel better about the sweets we ingest. So, what is it about dark chocolate that has nutrition enthusiasts so excited? It turns out it is not the sugary milk chocolate bar we can thank; it’s cocoa.

What Is Cocoa?
Cocoa comes from the seeds of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) found in Central and South Africa (1). To make chocolate, the seeds and cacao fruit are fermented and ground into a paste to create cocoa butter and cocoa liquor, the bases of any chocolate product. The amount of the liquor determines the type of chocolate it becomes, with bittersweet containing the most, followed by semisweet and sweet. The darker the chocolate, the more cocoa liquor it contains. While some dark chocolate may contain dairy, it is primarily milk chocolate that combines whole milk, sugar and less cocoa than dark to create a very sweet and much more fattening version of cocoa. Non-organic white chocolate is made from cocoa butter, artificial flavoring and little to no cocoa at all; organic white chocolate still lacks cocoa, but uses natural vanilla extract and cane sugar instead of artificial flavors. Cocoa, once processed into chocolate, contains carbohydrates, potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium and fats (1).

Polyphenolic Flavonoids
Cocoa is naturally rich in fat, but it is also a great source of polyphenolic flavonoids. Flavonoids are anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants, promoters of positive cell growth and creation, benefit the heart by increasing endothelial nitric oxide production (promotes arterial relaxation and reduces risk of blood clotting) and support healthy cholesterol levels by preventing LDL (bad cholesterol) from forming in the bloodstream (2).

Cocoa contains the sub-class of flavonoids called flavanols, which are also found in red grapes, green, white and black teas, berries, apples and red wine. Other classes of polyphenolic flavonoids include flavanones (citrus fruits), flavones (herbs) and isoflavones (soy) (2). At least one study has claimed the flavonols in cocoa can “prevent cognitive impairment” due to aging: “A study in 1,640 elderly men and women found that those with higher dietary flavonoid intake (>13.6 mg/day) had better cognitive performance at baseline and experienced significantly less age-related cognitive decline over a 10-year period than those with a lower flavonoid intake (0-10.4 mg/day)” (2). Other studies have shown a decrease in risks of coronary heart disease and stroke. Because of their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities, flavonoids are being used in research against diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes, and are available in different forms of supplements. At this time, flavonoids cannot claim to treat these diseases.

Supplements
We can’t overlook the fact that eating chocolate everyday may have a negative influence on your waistline. To avoid this, we have access to sugar-free, additive-free supplements. Processing cocoa takes away from its natural antioxidant powers; pure cocoa is available in supplement form as powders and pills, eliminating the problem of diminished health benefits through production and having to endure cocoa’s natural bitter, unpleasant taste. There are also liquid cocoa drinks and chocolate bar vitamin supplements, but these are often made with other ingredients, like green tea and cane sugar, to enhance taste. Flavonoid content varies with environmental factors, processing, storing and cooking. No adverse affects have been associated with high dietary intakes of flavonoids from plant-based foods (2). A consistent dosage is not yet recommended.

Cocoa Myths
Acne.
Although some studies suggest that chocolate may cause acne, there is no clear evidence supporting the conclusion. The tests are often done with pimple-prone teenagers eating milk chocolate, not dark. Acne is, by nature, hormonal and hygienic. Diet can play a part in acne, but it has no connection to any specific food, including chocolate (3).
Caffeine. People sometimes chalk up the hyperactivity seen after chocolate consumption to caffeine, while what is actually happening is the experience of a “sugar high.” The natural caffeine in cocoa beans is amplified during chocolate production up to 35 milligrams (dark chocolate more so than milk) in a 40 gram piece (4). However, an average cup of coffee contains 140 milligrams of caffeine, far more than your candy bar.
Aphrodisiac. Chocolate stimulates the brain by encouraging the production of natural hormones called endorphins and serotonin. Endorphins are responsible for good feelings, like pleasure, and serotonin is a neurotransmitter that aids us in feeling happiness. However, studies have shown that a person needs to eat several pounds of chocolate at once to really have it affect his or her brain (5). Like all good things, use cocoa moderately; no more than 30% of daily nutritional intake should come from fat, according to federal dietary guidelines (2). WF

References
1. O. Twersky, “Chocolate—and Your Health,” www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20000219/chocolate-your-health, accessed Nov. 30, 2011.
2. J. Higdon, “Micronurient Information Center: Flavonoids,” April 2005, http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/phytochemicals/flavonoids/index.html, accessed Nov. 30, 2011.
3. “Does Eating Chocolate Cause Acne?” www.acnetreatment.org/chocolate.html, accessed Nov. 30, 2011.
4. “Does Cocoa Contain Caffeine?” www.food-info.net/uk/qa/qa-fp47.htm, accessed Nov. 30, 2011.
5. K.A. Dyer, “Chocolate: Good for the Mind, Body & Spirit,” 2006, www.medicalwellnessassociation.com/articles/chocolate_benefits.htm, accessed Nov. 30, 2011.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, January 2012