Cocoa: A Sweet Treat for Your Heart and Brain by Nicole Crane, B.S., NTP
Few things please me more than a delicious and nutritious superfood. Unprocessed cocoa is quickly emerging as the market’s newest and hottest superfood. The Latin name for cocoa, Theobroma, translates to “food of the Gods,” as many of us delightfully worship the altar of dark chocolate. As marvelous and enjoyable as cocoa and the chocolate it becomes can be, few people think of it as a food that benefits health.
Cocoa is a very interesting food, with a long and sordid history. There is historical evidence of its use as a heath food as early as 1500 BC and it was the first form of currency used in Mesoamerica, where it was a native planti. Cocoa is a rich source of potassium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, folate, niacin, choline and lutein.ii There are over 600 volatile compounds that interact with our senses, many of which are distinctly un-cocoa like, that give chocolate its unique flavor and aroma.iii While the superfood itself is supremely healthy, after processing, alkalized sugar and dairyiv are added, drastically reducing its benefits. It is important to choose a cocoa powder that is unprocessed and sweetened with a healthy alternative like stevia. This retains the wonderful antioxidants and phytonutrients that give cocoa is super power ability.
Cocoa is rich in antioxidants, measuring an impressive 55,653 μ mol TE/100g on the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scalev. ORAC units are a measurement of the strength of antioxidants developed by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). To put that in to perspective, on the ORAC scale, blackberries measure at 5905vi and brewed green tea measures at 1253.vii Cocoa is in the top 20 of the most powerful antioxidants that have been measured. It contains several powerful phytonutrients, including the flavonoids epicatechin, theobromine and anthocyanadin. viii These are the same components that give foods like green tea and berries their fantastic nutritional benefits.
Cocoa really shines when it comes to benefiting the heart and cardiovascular system. After observing indigenous people of San Blas Island in Central America, who are daily consumers of a flavanol rich cocoa drink, it was noted that they maintain normal blood pressure well into old age. It is thought that flavanols increase production of nitric oxide (NO), a gas produced within the blood vessels that fosters relaxation of the smooth muscle cells within that blood vessel. NO allows blood vessels to remain wide open, which supports healthy blood flow. When the blood vessels remain open and blood flows freely, blood pressure often returns to normal levels. NO also makes blood less sticky and thick by supporting healthy platelet function, which also contributes to healthy blood pressure. ix A meta-analyses of 20 studies involving 856 mainly healthy participants showed that cocoa reduced blood pressure a statistically significant amount in as little as two weeks.x Healthy circulation is what keeps blood vessels healthy, flexible and strong, and brings oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body. Considering we have 60-100,000 miles of blood vessels in our bodiesxi, circulation is such an important aspect of health to support.