Saturday, August 9, 2014


Photo Credit: Jenny 

Cocoa lovers rejoice! I was initially uncertain about the hype surrounding cocoa and dark chocolate and their many incredible health benefits. But after exploring the scientific literature, I can say that the hype is completely justified and may even be understated.

Bottom line: cocoa powder is a low-calorie diet enhancer with numerous health benefits.

Cocoa powder comes from cocoa beans after the fatty cocoa butter has been extracted. Cocoa powder is naturally acidic and naturally bitter but rich in powerful antioxidants (one of the richest sources of flavanols). Various cocoa powder products are available including those that have been alkali processed which means the powder has been treated with an alkaline (basic) component to neutralize the pH, and this results in a better taste and solubility for beverages. However, keep in mind that processing significantly reduces the amount of antioxidants. For the best health benefits, stick with the unprocessed cocoa.

Cocoa, like many fruits and veggies and teas, is loaded is flavanols and flavonoids (molecules with powerful health properties). One tablespoon of dry cocoa powder contains 12 calories, 1 gram protein, less than 1 gram fat, less than 0.1 gram sugar, and 1.8 grams of fiber (USDA nutrient database). Numerous studies have demonstrated its beneficial effects for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Overall, there is overwhelming evidence that suggests a definite link between cocoa consumption and cardioprotective effects.[1] Here are some recent scientific publications regarding the cardiovascular benefits of eating cocoa.

A recent study compared the effects of cocoa flavonoids and theobromine (also in cocoa) on high-density lipoprotein (HDL)-cholesterol levels (the “good” cholesterol). Healthy men and women aged 40-70 were put in different groups which consumed various amounts of each compound daily for 4 weeks. The results showed that theobromine significantly increased HDL-cholesterol levels while the cocoa flavonoids did not under these experimental conditions. This suggests that theobromine (whether consumed from cocoa or other sources) may help improve overall cholesterol levels.[2]

In another study, healthy and moderately hypercholesterolaemic individuals consumed two servings per day for 4 weeks of either milk (control) or cocoa powder in milk (15 grams cocoa powder per drink, contained 208 mg polyphenols). After four weeks, the participants who consumed the cocoa beverage had increased levels of HDL (good cholesterol) and lower levels of blood glucose and pro-inflammatory markers. Therefore, the regular consumption of cocoa (with milk, if you want to match the experimental conditions) may improve overall cholesterol levels while lowering blood glucose and inducing anti-inflammatory effects without gaining any weight.[3]

Recently, scientists investigated the effects of dark chocolate and cocoa on arterial stiffness and endothelial function. Overweight, middle-aged adults consumed 37 grams of dark chocolate and a cocoa beverage (containing 22 grams cocoa) per day for 4 weeks. The control group consumed a low-flavanol chocolate bar and a beverage with no cocoa. The experimental and control treatments contained equal amounts of total fat, saturated fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Participants who consumed the cocoa and dark chocolate saw an increase of brachial artery diameter and basal blood flow volume. Women also had a decrease in arterial stiffness. Overall, regular consumption of dark chocolate/cocoa can improve vasodilation (which is good in most cases) and may reduce arterial stiffness in women.[4]

Collectively, it appears that cocoa is an excellent dietary addition to help improve cardiovascular health.

Components in cocoa are believed to play a positive role in the prevention of type 2 diabetes, though the pharmacology is still being investigated.

Recently, scientists discovered that epicatechin (the main flavanol in cocoa) and a cocoa extract improved insulin sensitivity to cells treated with high glucose and can help prevent or delay potential hepatic dysfunction by regulating glucose uptake and production. In other words, the flavanols in cocoa may help prevent insulin resistance which has major implications on the prevention of type 2 diabetes.[5]

Additionally, researchers found that epicatechin protects pancreatic beta cells (the cells responsible for insulin secretion) against cell death and oxidative stress suggesting that regular consumption of cocoa could play a preventative role in the development of type 2 diabetes.[6]

Although many fruits, veggies, and herbs contain flavonoids, cocoa truly is one of the richest sources. Through inhibition of oxidative stress and inflammation, the flavonoids and other components in cocoa have been demonstrated to play a preventative role in cancer cell progression in numerous cell and animal studies for colon, pancreatic, lung, breast, hepatic, leukemia, and prostate cancers. However, the effects of cocoa consumption on cancer development and progression in humans are still highly debatable.

One of the most supportive studies was published in 2007 which investigated the effects of cocoa consumption in the Kuna tribe of Panama who regularly consume a flavanol-rich cocoa beverage allowing them to have perhaps the most flavonoid-rich diet in the world. The authors found that death rates in the tribe due to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer were all significantly lower compared to those in mainland Panama. Scientists believe this is due to the tribe’s rich flavanol diet, but they caution many other factors could play a role in the decreased risk of deaths due to cancer and that more studies are needed to draw a clear link between cocoa consumption and decreased risk of cancer.[7]

Conversely, some studies show no association between flavanol consumption and risk of cancer. For example, a clinical trial in Greece found no significant association between flavanol consumption and incidence of breast cancer.[8] Likewise, a study looking at data from 1965 to 2011 found no significant evidence that supports the prevention of oral cancer in response to flavonoid consumption.[9]

Overall, cell and animal studies show great promise for the components in cocoa to prevent and potentially treat cancer. However, more studies are needed to make any definite conclusions regarding cocoa consumption and its effects on cancer in humans.

Participants consumed a dark chocolate mix drink containing cocoa polyphenols for 30 days. Although cognitive performance was unaffected, participants who drank the cocoa mix reported higher levels of calmness and contentedness compared to the placebo group. This suggests a possible pharmacological role of cocoa polyphenols on anxiety and/or depression.[10]

Jenny's Recipes: 
Cocoa powder can be added to anything. In your morning oatmeal, smoothies, yogurt etc.. Here are a few favorites that are super healthy! For more recipes visit 
Cocoa Banana Icecream 
1 frozen banana and cocoa powder - blend together until smooth
Cocoa Pudding
1/2 cup of greek yogurt and 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder - mix together
Healthy Hot Chocolate 
1/4 cup of cocoa powder, water and stevia - microwave or cook on low heat 

[1] Arranz et al. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2013 Jun;57(6):936-47.
[2] Neufinger et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Jun;97(6):1201-9.
[3] Sarriá et al. Br J Nutr. 2014 Jan 14;111(1):122-34.  
[4] West et al. Br J Nutr. 2014 Feb;111(4):653-61.
[5] Cordero-Herrera et al. Food Chem Toxicol. 2014 Feb;64:10-9.
[6] Martín et al. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2014 Mar;58(3):447-56.
[7] Bayard et al. Int. J. Med. Sci. 2007; 4, 53–58.
[8] Peterson et al. Brit. J. Cancer. 2003; 89, 1255–1259.
[9] Varoni et al. Curr. Med. Chem. 2012; 19,170 6–1720.
[10] Pase et al. J Psychopharmacol. 2013 May;27(5):451-8.

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