Crazy for Cocoa

Nov 6, 2016 | Food and Nutrition | 0 comments

The Dirt:
“Don’t worry, dark chocolate is good for you!” …We’ve all heard that one before— especially when struggling through a diet. But, how healthy is chocolate? How much (or how little) do you need to reap the nutritional benefits? Is it just dark chocolate or can it be found in other chocolate products as well? Let’s investigate…

We were dying to know… Is chocolate healthy?

Unfortunately, the answer is not as straight forward as we would have hoped! Dark chocolate is said to contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It has also been touted to increase blood flow, improve heart health, and decrease cholesterol. But, has this been scientifically proven?
The vast majority of the nutrients found in chocolate come from the cocoa bean. The chocolate products we know and love all start with raw cacao beans. Grown mostly in the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Indonesia, the cocoa pod is a fruit that contains roughly 50 large cocoa, or cacao, seeds per pod. These seeds hold all the nutrients.
Cocoa pods grow straight out of the trunk or branches of the cocoa tree.
Whole and half fresh ripe cacao fruit and seeds
However, in order to make the chocolate that ends up inside a candy wrapper, the cocoa beans are roasted or fermented, refined, and sweetened with milk and sugar in order to dilute the bitter taste of raw cacao, ultimately creating the chocolate we love. This process often decreases the nutritional content of the cocoa bean. Thus, the average chocolate bar is not as healthy as you might have hoped.

The nutritional content of a raw cacao bean

Originally dubbed “food of the Gods”, the cacao (or cocoa) bean is known to contain over 300 healthy compounds.

Originally dubbed “food of the Gods”, the cacao (or cocoa) bean is the unprocessed form of chocolate. This superfood is known to contain over 300 healthy compounds. These compounds include vitamins, such as B1, B2, B3, B5, B9 and Vitamin E, minerals like iron, zinc, magnesium, copper, and calcium, and antioxidants, such as flavanols and catechins. Cocoa beans are also rich in fiber and healthy fatty acids, like oleic acid and palmitic acid.
As we have previously discussed, in our recent article “Fat: Our New Friend,” there are many benefits to consuming healthy fatty acids. Healthy fatty acids help your body absorb vitamins, protect your brain, and provide support to your cell membranes. We have also reviewed the importance of vitamins. The vitamins in in cacao can help maintain the healthy condition of your cells, organs, and tissues, which can keep your body from wearing down.
Antioxidants, on the other hand, are a little more complex.
Before we get into the health claims that are made about antioxidants, it is important to understand that the science behind the effects of antioxidants is controversial. Many of the research undertakings are performed “in vitro,” which means the test occur in the lab as opposed to in the human body.
While the results indicated that consuming cocoa can improve blood vessel function and hearth health, this might not be true for everyone. Additionally, how your body uses the antioxidants that it ingests is quite unclear, thus there are no chocolate products on the market that make health claims and are backed by the FDA.
According to the MARS Center for Health Science, cocoa provides the most potent form of flavanols, a subgroup of the antioxidant flavanoids. Flavanols are often found in various plants that we consume, like tea, blueberries, acai, and red wine. Research indicates that the consumption of flavanols has been positively correlated with improved blood vessel function.
In order to measure the effects of cocoa flavanols on blood vessel function and possible increased blood flow, scientists often employ the Flow-Mediated Dilation (FMD). This method measures the response of blood vessels in the human body to physical and chemical stimuli. It is able to determine how the body can adjust blood flow and provide increased blood flow in response to changes in a local environment. In order to exert the positive effects on FMD, 200 milligrams of cocoa flavanols should be consumed daily. This amount could be provided by 2.5 grams of high-flavanol cocoa powder or 10 grams of high flavanol dark chocolate.
Substantial data suggests that flavonoid-rich food could help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. Cocoa is the richest source of flavonoids, but current processing reduces the content substantially.” (International Journal of Medical Sciences)
According to Mintel market research, “The most recent study, published in the journal Heart in 2015, examined the results of a long-term study tracking the diets and long-term health of 21,000 adults. The study revealed that adults who ate up to 100g of chocolate per day had 11% lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who did not.” But…researchers are not entirely sure how!

A 2006 study focused on the link between dark chocolate and its ability to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease in men. The study included 470 elderly men and measured their blood pressure at the start of the study, five years later, and incorporated a fifteen year follow up. The men consumed cocoa-containing foods, which over the course of the study, reduced blood pressure and subsequently, the risk of cardiovascular death.

Catechins, another type of flavonoids, are also believed to help stabilize the free radicals that can affect your cells health. Free radicals can enter your body through pollution and cigarette smoke, as well as the normal digestion process. “Free radicals are charged chemical particles of oxygen that enter into destructive chemical bonds with organic substances such as proteins. The result is an oxidation, or chemical burning, of the substance, which destroys it.”
Once they are inside your body, free radicals can cause cell damage and ultimately can kill healthy cells. Catechins help fight against and neutralize free radicals.
However, the difficulty with truly understanding the role of antioxidants is that science has not been able to measure the antioxidant effects in the human body. So, unfortunately, we cannot advise you on how 6.3 milligrams of epicatechin will be used by your body.
In addition to catechins, cocoa also contains the antioxidant epicatechin. Like flavanols and catechins, epicatechin is compound in dark chocolate. The University of California, Davis performed a study that concluded the following: “100 grams of cocoa contain 26.2 milligrams of epicatechin. A comparable amount of dark chocolate has 12 milligrams of catechin and 41.5 milligrams of epicatechin, while 100 grams of milk chocolate contain 2.1 milligrams of catechin and 6.3 milligrams of epicatechin.” Thus, further proving that the various types of antioxicants and nutrients found in raw cocoa will decrease depending on the processing and roasting of the cocoa bean. Because of this, you should get the most nutrients from dark chocolate.

Certain types of flavanols in cocoa can influence the circulatory system.

Furthermore, the more roasted, fermented, and processed the cocoa beans are, the less nutrients the chocolate product will provide. Thus, the cocoa beans used in dark chocolate are often less manipulated and will typically have more nutritional benefits than milk chocolate. “For example, 100 grams of dark chocolate provides about 50 milligrams of catechins, while a similar amount of milk chocolate contains about 8 milligrams.”

But, because of the variability in processing, and the added sugar and milk, we cannot guarantee the amount of flavanols in all dark chocolate. However, we understand that the raw cacao products can be less appetizing and we want to help our readers ascertain how much and what kind of chocolate to eat in order to satisfy a sweet tooth without going overboard!

From our research, when it comes to serving size, the best recommendation to reap the nutritional benefits of chocolate without over-consuming fat or sugar is roughly 10 grams of dark chocolate. To put that into perspective, that is little under 1 serving (about 8 chips) of dark chocolate from a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips with 48% cacao OR about 10-11 chips of 60% cacao dark chocolate chips. Keep in mind, if you are looking at a chocolate bar, the average serving size will be larger—typically between 40-50 grams.

That being said, if you are looking for the healthiest cocoa products to obtain the benefits of this powerful superfood, you are better off buying a product that has not been roasted at a high heat or overly processed. Compared to the average chocolate bar, raw cacao products will provide more vitamins and minerals, contain a higher antioxidant content, and possibly increase blood flow and heart health.

Compared to a yodel or a piece of cake, dark chocolate is obviously the better option. However, you still want to be mindful of the extra fat and sugar that you are eating along with the cocoa!

The Bottom Line:

The nutrients found in chocolate come from the raw cocoa bean. As the cocoa bean is roasted, refined, and processed to created a delicious sweet treat, the dense nutrient compounds can be lost in the process. A serving of dark chocolate will provide you with some vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but the most powerful source of these healthy compounds is from raw cocoa products.


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