Cocoa today is most famous for being the key ingredient of indulgent chocolate, with over 4.5 million tonnes of it consumed a year. Despite chocolate's reputation as being an unhealthy treat food, it actually has many medicinal uses when the right kind and right amount is used.
Cocoa was first developed as a crop by ancient South American cultures, the Aztecs and the Mayans, and artifacts found in Ecuador suggest people have been cultivating cocoa for 5,3000 years. They used cocoa as an aphrodisiac, a primary medicine for treating seizures, fevers, digestive problems, skin problems and most famously, fatigue. They would often use cocoa as a base drink, to add other herbs and remedies into.
There may be some truth in its use as an aphrodisiac, as cocoa has been found to contain phenethylamine, which releases the same endorphins our bodies release when we fall in love.
The cocoa bean was so significant to many cultures that it was used as currency, served at feasts and given to warriors as a post battle reward. The sweet pulp of cocoa fruit was used to make fermented beverages, which was what made the plant popular in the americas. Spanish conquerors in the 16th century spread it to Europe, where it quickly turned into the chocolate we know and love today.
But what exactly are the health benefits of our much loved chocolate?
Full of antioxidants
Polyphenols are naturally occurring antioxidants found in many fruits and veg. Cocoa is one of the richest sources of Polyphenols, most notably flavanols, which have strong anti-inflammatory effects and cause most of cocoa's health benefits.
These antioxidants are thought to have many health benefits, including reduced inflammation, better blood flow, lower blood pressure, improved cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
May reduce high blood pressure
Cocoa may reduce high blood pressure, due to the flavanols improving nitric oxide levels in the blood, which can reduce blood pressure and improve the function of your blood vessels.
This effect was first noted in a study of the Kunda Indians of San Blas islands of Panama, who traditionally consume 30 ounces of cocoa a day. They found the prevalence of hypertension was very low, only 2.2%, and their blood pressure does not tend to increase with age.The population also experiences lower rates of diabetes mellitus, myocardial infarction, stroke, and cancer than mainland Panamanians
This finding has been repeated in other studies, with one review of 35 experiments finding that patients given anywhere from 1.5-105 grams of cocoa products had a 2mmHg reduction in blood pressure. The improvement was found to be stronger with those who already had high blood pressure.
May lower risk of heart attack and stroke
A review of studies on 157,809 people found that people who consume high amounts of chocolate had a significantly lower risk of heart disease and death. Those who consumed the most chocolate were 4.1% less likely to develop coronary heart disease, and 2.1% less likely to have a stroke than those who consumed the least.
This improvement is thought to be for two reasons. First the flavanols in cocoa improve the levels of nitric oxide in the blood, which causes arteries to dilate, improving blood flow.
The second, is due to cocoa reducing ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, improving blood sugars and reducing inflammation, all of which are associated with lower risk of heart attack, heart failure and stroke.
Additionally, two Swedish studies found daily doses of 19-30 grams of chocolate per day was linked with a lower rate of heart failure.
Improves blood flow to the brain and brain function
Flavanols can cross the blood-brain barrier, and are involved in the biochemical pathways that produce neurons and other important molecules for the function of the brain.
Studies show that by doing this flavanols can reduce your risk of neurodegenerative diseases by improving brain function.
A two-week study in 34 older adults given high-flavanol cocoa found blood flow to the brain increased by 8% after one week and 10% after two weeks. This is again thought to be down to flavanols influencing nitric oxide production and improving blood supply to the brain.
Another interesting study gave 90 elderly individuals high, low or intermediate amounts of cocoa for 8 weeks, by the end of the study those given high cocoa completed memory tests quicker, and scored higher in the verbal fluency test, going from 6 words per 60 seconds to 9.
Further studies found that daily intake of cocoa flavanols can improve mental performancein people with and without mental impairment.
May improve mood and symptoms of depression
We've all bought a comforting bar of chocolate to cheer us up at some point, but did you know there are multiple studies who found consuming cocoa can improve calmness and contentment?
And it might be because of more than just the sensory pleasure of eating chocolate too, as cocoa contains tryptophan, a chemical that converts into the natural mood stabilizer serotonin.
One study found pregnant women were less stressedwhen consuming chocolate frequently, and it even caused an improved mood in their babies.
Additionally, a study in older men found those who preferred chocolate had a lower body mass index, lower waist circumference, exercised more, had improved overall health and reported better psychological well-being.
May improve symptoms of type 2 diabetes
Studies have shown higher intake of flavanols, with cocoa one of the richest sources, can result in a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control.
Test tube studies indicate this is due to cocoa flavanols reducing inflammation slowing down carbohydrate digestion and absorption in the gut, stimulating the uptake of sugar out of the blood into muscles and improving insulin secretion.
Note: this only applies to high cocoa, high in flavanols, low sugar chocolate. Eating highly processed, low cocoa, high in sugar chocolate will still worsen diabetes.
May aid weight control
Despite the stereotype of chocolate making you gain weight, recent studies suggest that high cocoa dark chocolate may assist with weight management and loss.
Cocoa does this by regulating the use of energy, increasing fat oxidation and feelings of fullness and reducing appetite and inflammation.
A population study of over 1,000 people found those who consumed chocolate frequently had a lower BMI than those who didn’t, despite the chocolate group engaging in the same amount of exercise and eating more calories and fat.
Additionally, another study examining weight loss using low carb diets found that those given 42 grams of high cocoa chocolate lost weight faster than the regular diet group.
May have cancer protective properties
Test tube studies have found that cocoa has strong anti-oxidant effects, which protects cells against damage from reactive molecules, fights inflammations, helps prevent the spread of cancer cells, and can induce cancer cells death.
Aswell as this, animal studies have found a cocoa rich diet can reduce the spread of breast, pancreatic, prostate, liver and colon cancer and leukemia.
Additionally, cocoa contains selenium, which has been shown to reduce the bad side effects of radiotherapy.
May help people with asthma
Asthma is a chronic disease caused by obstruction and inflammation of the airways. Cocoa can improve symptoms of asthma due to its powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory flavanols, and also contains theobromine and theophylline which are anti-asthmatic.
Theobromine is similar to caffeine and helps with persistent coughing, whereas theophylline helps the lungs dilate and the airways relax.
Animal studies have shown that cocoa extract can reduce tightness of the airways, and tissue thickness, helping soothe asthma.
Immune stimulating and anti-bacterial
Cocoa powder contains iron, zinc and selenium, which are minerals that help give the immune system a boost, Zinc in particular is very good for healing wounds.
Several studies have also found cocoa can be helpful in protecting against cavities and gum disease as it contains many anti-bacterial and anti-enzymatic compounds.
One study gave rats infected with oral bacteria cocoa extract, by the end of the study they had a significant reduction in dental cavities compared with the control.
Chocolate can also help with acne, as the polyphenols it contains have many benefits for your skin. Long term use of cocoa has been shown to improve blood circulation, protect skin from sun and improve the surface texture and hydration of your skin.
The European food safety authority recommends 2.5 grams of cocoa powder, or 10 grams of high-flavanol dark chocolate to feel its health benefits.
So, know you know the health benefits of cocoa, what’s the best way to take it?
One of the best things about taking cocoa for its health benefits is that its incredibly easy to incorporate into your diet, no supplements needed!
Here are some ideas:
Eat dark chocolate that's at least 70% cocoa (like our new cheerful Buddha cbd chocolates)
Mix cocoa with milk for a chocolate milkshake (or try our medicinal mushroom iced milkshake mix)
Or add it to your daily smoothie for a chocolatey twist.