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Cocoa is thought to have first been used by the Maya civilization of Central America.
It was introduced to Europe by Spanish conquerors in the 16th century and quickly became popular as a health-promoting medicine.
Cocoa powder is made by crushing cocoa beans and removing the fat or cocoa butter.
Today, cocoa is most famous for its role in chocolate production. However, modern research has revealed that it does indeed contain important compounds that can benefit your health.
- Polyphenols – plant-derived compounds that protect against bacteria and UV rays. The most abundant polyphenols in cocoa are flavonoids, catechins, and epicatechins.
- Theobromine – plant-derived compound that has many important functions in heart, respiratory, and mouth health.
- Minerals – the most abundant minerals are magnesium, copper, and iron, all of which are important in overall health and body function.
You’ve probably heard the buzz about the possible heart health benefits of chocolate, especially dark chocolate. In fact, the candy company Mars, Inc., plans to seek a health claim for chocolate from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the next few years based on research they sponsored regarding the potential role of cocoa flavonoids in cardiovascular health. Flavonoids are chemicals that might lower blood pressure. Dark chocolate contains more flavonoids than milk chocolate or white chocolate. Mars, Inc. is also sponsoring research to see if cocoa flavonoids can help reduce age-related memory decline.
Somewhat paradoxically, cocoa intake, even in the form of chocolate, may help you control your weight.
A population study found that people who consumed chocolate more frequently had a lower BMI than people who ate it less often, despite the former group also eating more calories and fat (28Trusted Source).
Additionally, a weight loss study using low-carbohydrate diets found that a group given 42 grams or about 1.5 ounces of 81% cocoa chocolate per day lost weight faster than the regular diet group (29).
Overall, it appears that cocoa and cocoa-rich products may be helpful in achieving weight loss or maintaining weight, but further studies are needed.
Short-term ingestion of dark chocolate (100g of 70% cocoa) in normal weight obese women (women with high body fat but normal BMI) for one week had no effect on circulating interleukins IL-1α, IL-1β, or IL-6 although it did significantly reduce interleukin 1 receptor antagonist (IL-1Ra) concentrations by 33+/-4%. IL-1Ra is a potent antiinflammatory agent, antagonizing the the actions of IL-1α and IL-1β which are secreted in high amounts from visceral fat. Because IL-1Ra is increased in obesity and has also been shown to antagonize leptin signaling at the level of the hypothalamus in rodents it is considered a possible biomarker for leptin resistance. Due to a reduction in waist circumference seen in this sample of women, the IL-1Ra reduction was thought to be indicative of leptin resensitivity rather than a proinflammatory mechanism per se.
Fat oxidation rates during modest exercise in overweight adults who consumed 451mg cocoa flavanols for 12 weeks (alongside an exercise program) were not affected relative to either exercise without the flavanols, flavanols without exercise, or neither.
Studies in overweight or obese adults that incorporate dark chocolate into their dietary regimen have failed to note any inherent weight loss effect of 50g dark chocolate (2135mg polyphenolics) over four weeks despite benefits to blood flow.
For the new study, Rebollo-Hernanz and colleagues wanted to find out whether targeting the interaction between adipocytes and macrophages with cocoa shell extract and its main phenolics could prevent the mitochondrial damage and insulin resistance that obesity can induce.
On closer inspection, they found that adding the compounds to the culture caused the white adipocytes to turn into “beige adipocytes.”
Beige adipocytes differ from white ones in that they have many more mitochondria and are much more efficient at burning fat.
Should the findings also be true of human cells, the team sees potential in using cocoa shell extract as an additive to boost the nutritional value of foods and drinks.
In addition to these nutritional benefits, the team highlights the potential environmental advantages of using cocoa shell extract to enhance nutrition.
Typically a waste product of the cocoa industry, cocoa bean shells can damage the environment if producers, who discard around 700,000 tons of them per year, do not dispose of the shells responsibly, notes Prof. Elvira Gonzalez de Mejia, a study co-author.
Cocoa flavonoids improve brain health and cognitive function through both direct and indirect mechanisms.
Flavonoids, mainly catechin and epicatechin, cross the blood-brain barrier and localize in areas of the brain responsible for memory and learning, which is where most neurodegeneration occurs .
A pilot study on 4 healthy young adults showed that cocoa flavanols also increase blood flow in the brain .
Increased reactive oxidative species (ROS) play a role in the onset of brain disorders.
Due to the antioxidant properties of polyphenols, consumption of cocoa reduced the production of ROS, potentially protecting against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia .
A pilot study also showed that catechins and epicatechins in cocoa prevent the toxicity and death of brain cells in rats .
Regular consumption of cocoa products containing flavanols (a class of compounds with antioxidant effects) may reduce the risk of heart disease, according to a research review published in 2008. The review’s authors found that flavanol-containing products may produce positive changes in blood pressure, as well as improve function in platelets and the endothelium (a layer of cells lining the blood vessels).2
Other research from 2002 shows that regular consumption of cocoa extract may help protect against heart disease by decreasing oxidative stress (a destructive process that occurs when DNA-damaging free radicals overwhelm the body’s ability to neutralize them).3
A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology involved 16 adults, all of whom had heart disease. Twice a day for 30 days, all study members drank a beverage with a high concentration of cocoa flavanols (a type of powerful antioxidant). Later in the study, the participants drank a different, low-flavanol beverage twice a day for 30 days.4
Polyphenolic compounds, such as flavanols offer proven health benefits with no toxicity and low cost. Cacao, red wine and tea are all rich sources of flavanols. In a 2017 review article, researchers found that all three, cacao, tea and wine, may reduce diabetes risks (29).
In another study, cocoa compounds have shown to improve blood glucose homeostasis. Compounds found in cocoa exerted their anti-diabetic effects by stimulating glycogen synthesis and glucose uptake (30)
Eating cocoa is LIKELY SAFE for most people. Cocoa contains caffeine and related chemicals. Eating large amounts might cause caffeine-related side effects such as nervousness, increased urination, sleeplessness, and a fast heartbeat.
Cocoa can cause allergic skin reactions, constipation, and might trigger migraine headaches. It can also cause digestive complaints including nausea, intestinal discomfort, stomach rumbling, and gas.
There is no recommended dose of cocoa extract. The right dose for you may depend on factors including age, gender, and medical history.
Various doses have been used in studies investigating the health benefits of cocoa extract. Doses range from 19-54 grams of daily, dark chocolate to 46-100 grams daily of dark chocolate daily or cocoa providing 25-1,080 mg of cocoa polyphenols daily.7