Cocoa’s Copious Health Benefits

March 06, 2012

We all know by now that a bit of chocolate is good for our health- but what specifically? Find out some of the top benefits here

Chocolate has been an appetizing, popular, and useful commodity for more than 2,000 years. From chocolate beverages, sweets, desserts and even entrees (think Mexican mole), chocolate’s uses truly span the gamut. The tasty treat has long been considered an aphrodisiac and more recently researchers point to its many medicinal qualities and health promoting aspects.

There are over 300 chemicals in chocolate, and it seems as if scientists are always discovering new information about how they work in the human body. Mayo clinic studies, for example, have found that chocolate contains stearic acid, a saturated fat that is associated with lower LDL cholesterol levels. In the past 6 months, two independent studies from Harvard have arrived at the same conclusion: cocoa is a super food when it comes to cardiovascular and metabolic health. According to these studies, cocoa improves blood pressure, endothelial health, cholesterol levels, and reduces the metabolic precursors leading to heart disease (studies can be found in Journal of Nutrition and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition).

Other research has pointed to the antioxidant effects of dark chocolate as well as its mood-elevating properties. In fact, 100 grams of cocoa contains a whopping 13,120 ORAC! Antioxidants have the potential to improve overall health, delay the onset of many age-related diseases, prevent macular eye disease, reduce the risk of some cancers, improve cardiovascular function, and more.

And there is even more good news about chocolate. A study from researchers based at Reading University’s School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, (published in the journal Physiology & Behavior) in the UK, found that consuming cocoa flavanols may improve aspects of eye and brain function. Cocoa contains a high concentration of flavanols, the phytochemical associated with improved vascular function among other things. The study looked at acute intake of cocoa flavanols and then tested the subject’s vision and cognitive performance and found that both were improved.

Flavonoid-rich cocoa consumption also was linked to reductions in risk factors for diabetes, a major contributor to cardiovascular disease. Also, resistance to the hormone insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar, favorably dropped among people who consumed flavonoid-rich cocoa, compared to controls in other studies.

While all chocolate contains flavonoids, it is important to choose dark chocolate with a cacao content upwards of 70 percent. The higher the cocoa percentage, the more flavanols and antioxidants it contains. This should be clearly stated on the package; if not, look for dark chocolate with the content clearly labeled, and few added ingredients.

Another interesting bit about chocolate is that the average cup of hot cocoa contains more flavonoids than other well known antioxidant drinks, like red wine and green tea. Do be mindful of added sugars and other added ingredients in your hot chocolate and chocolate bars.

For clarification, flavanols are a type of flavonoid.