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Crazy for Cocoa

Diet, Food Ingredients, Health

Crazy for Cocoa

The Dirt:

“Dark chocolate is good for you!” We’ve all heard that one before, especially when struggling with a diet. But how healthy is chocolate? And how much do you need to reap the nutritional benefits? Is it just dark chocolate or can it be found in other chocolate products as well?

We’re hungry to know…is chocolate healthy?

Of course, the answer is not as straightforward 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 chocolate products we know and love all begin 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.
Image: www.lessonpaths.com


Whole and half fresh ripe cacao fruit and seeds

The nutritional content of a raw cacao bean

Originally dubbed “food of the Gods”, the cacao (or cocoa) bean is the unprocessed form of chocolate that contains over 300 healthy compounds such as such as Vitamins 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 mentioned in our recent article “Fat: Our New Friend,” there are many benefits to consuming healthy fatty acids. These fats 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 cacao can help maintain healthy cells, organs, and tissues, which can keep your body from wearing down.

Antioxidants are a little more complex

The science behind the effects of antioxidants is controversial. Many of the research undertakings are performed “in vitro,” which means the test occurs in the lab as opposed to in the human body.

While results indicate that consuming cocoa can improve blood vessel function and heart health, this might not be true for everyone. Additionally, how your body uses the antioxidants is unclear. This is why there are no chocolate products on the market that make health claims.

According to the MARS Center for Health Science, cocoa provides the most potent form of flavanols, a subgroup of the antioxidant flavonoids. Flavanols are found in plants like tea, blueberries, acai, and red wine. Research indicates that the consumption of flavanols has been positively correlated with improved blood vessel function.

Substantial data suggests that flavonoid-rich foods 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)

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 cell health. Free radicals may enter your body through pollution and cigarette smoke, as well as the normal digestion process. 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.

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

From our research, when it comes to serving size, the best recommendation to reap the nutritional benefits of chocolate without overconsuming 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.

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 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.

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 nutrient-dense compounds can be lost in the process. A small 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.

D2D-illustration Bottom Line