Cocoa, revered by the Aztecs and Mayans as the "food of the gods," is now being worshipped by modern science.
Two recent independent studies at Harvard and another from Cambridge, published in the British Medical Journal, have found that cocoa is a superfood when it comes to improving, among other things:
- Blood pressure
- Blood vessel health
- Insulin sensitivity
- HDL cholesterol
- Overall prevention of cardiovascular disease
But do the benefits of cocoa outweigh the risks of eating too much chocolate?
Is chocolate — the combination of cocoa powder, cocoa solids (fats), sugar and other processing ingredients like soy lecithin and milk powders — a powerful medicinal food?
Should the two-thirds of American adults who are overweight consume it liberally in hopes of reversing the potential of developing heart disease and diabetes?
The answer, according to Eric Ding, a Harvard professor of nutrition and epidemiology, and co-author of a study on cacao in the Journal of Nutrition and another in the Current Cardiovascular Risk Report: you’d have to eat a lot of chocolate to derive the benefits of cacao.
Chocolate isn't the same as cacao
It would take about eight bars of dark chocolate or 33 bars of milk chocolate to reduce the chance of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, to the level that the study participants achieved, says Ding.
For those watching their weight and sugar intake, "obviously, that's a problem," Ding tells the Mother Nature Network.
What Ding and other researchers have found is that a specific subcategory of the antioxidant group, flavonoids, specifically epicatechin (eh-pee-cat-a-kin), is the compound that gives cocoa (or cacao, as it’s also known) its myriad health benefits.
"Cocoa flavonoids are the main beneficial compound of chocolate. Dark chocolate has more flavonoids than milk chocolate and pure cocoa has the most," Ding says.
Ding and his fellow researchers performed a meta-analysis of dozens of studies involving cocoa. The analysis involved 2,575 participants and concluded that the maximum benefits of cocoa were cashed in after consuming 400-500 mg of cocoa flavonoids per day. Subjects were given a combination of fortified shakes or powders or dark chocolate bars (bars being at least 65 percent cocoa; control parameters included keeping the amount of fat, sugar and total calories of the participants the same).
Due to both pure cocoa’s bitter taste and its relative lack of availability in the U.S., compared to processed chocolate bars (processing destroys most of the flavonoids), one can assume that most Americans would need to supplement with cocoa flavonoids.
Can I take a vitamin to get the health benefits of cocoa?
Sort of. Currently, there are 13 vitamins that are considered essential by the National Institutes of Health. Although some vitamins are antioxidants, the free-radical-damage-fighting flavonoids found in chocolate are not considered essential.
So, at the moment, there are no epicatechin vitamins. There are, however, some cocoa supplements on the market, though not many. It’s also unclear whether supplements are as effective as naturally occurring cocoa.
Dr. Norman Hollenberg, another Harvard researcher who has studied cocoa extensively, believes drinking cocoa is a certain prescription for good health.
Hollenberg has observed for many years the ethnic Kuna group, who typically drink 5-6 cups of minimally processed cocoa per day, on their offshore Panamanian island habitat.
Is drinking cocoa healthier than eating it?
Drinking unadulterated cocoa is certainly healthier than bingeing on a dozen bars of chocolate, thinks Hollenberg.
Although his studies of the Kuna were largely observational when compared to the controlled and random studies of Ding and other researchers, Hollenberg believes imbibing in liquid cocoa has kept the Kuna free of modern lifestyle disease.
But that begs the question: does the fact that the Kuna’s lifestyle lacks the same stressors as first-world workers bias Hollenberg's hypothesis? How do we know that it's not just the chocolate, but a combination of many factors?
"We just don't know the answer to that; it's very hard to quantify stress," Hollenberg tells MNN.
But Hollenberg is betting on the cocoa. "The Kuna drink 40 cups of cocoa per person per week and manage, for the most part, to avoid getting four of the five most common killer diseases: stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes," he says.
Do other foods contain the same beneficial compounds?
Yes. Every fruit and vegetable contains flavonoids. Hollenberg describes epicatechin as the "all-star" flavonoid. Many fruits and vegetables contain both epicatechin and its closely-related compound, catechin.
So why not just ditch the chocolate all together and eat just fruits and vegetables?
"The flavonoids found in chocolate are too important to ignore," says Hollenberg. "The health benefits are tremendous."
Hollenberg, however, adds this cautionary last note, despite all the latest research on the health benefits of cocoa: "We know that cacao is good for you but we still don't know if you need anywhere near the amount the Kuna drink; there remains a lot of research to do."
Judd Handler is a health writer who lives in Encinitas, California.