A balanced diet is chocolate in both hands — a phrase commonly used to justify ones chocolate snacking behavior. A phrase now shown to actually harbor some truth, as the cocoa bean is a rich source of flavanols: a class of natural compounds that has neuroprotective effects.
In their recent review published in Frontiers in Nutrition, Italian researchers examined the available literature for the effects of acute and chronic administration of cocoa flavanols on different cognitive domains. In other words: what happens to your brain up to a few hours after you eat cocoa flavanols, and what happens when you sustain such a cocoa flavanol enriched diet for a prolonged period of time?
Although randomized controlled trials investigating the acute effect of cocoa flavanols are sparse, most of them point towards a beneficial effect on cognitive performance. Participants showed, among others, enhancements in working memory performance and improved visual information processing after having had cocoa flavanols. And for women, eating cocoa after a night of total sleep deprivation actually counteracted the cognitive impairment (i.e. less accuracy in performing tasks) that such a night brings about. Promising results for people that suffer from chronic sleep deprivation or work shifts.
It has to be noted though, that the effects depended on the length and mental load of the used cognitive tests to measure the effect of acute cocoa consumption. In young and healthy adults, for example, a high demanding cognitive test was required to uncover the subtle immediate behavioral effects that cocoa flavanols have on this group.
The effects of relatively long-term ingestion of cocoa flavanols (ranging from 5 days up to 3 months) has generally been investigated in elderly individuals. It turns out that for them cognitive performance was improved by a daily intake of cocoa flavanols. Factors such as attention, processing speed, working memory, and verbal fluency were greatly affected. These effects were, however, most pronounced in older adults with a starting memory decline or other mild cognitive impairments.
And this was exactly the most unexpected and promising result according to authors Valentina Socci and Michele Ferrara from the University of L’Aquila in Italy. “This result suggests the potential of cocoa flavanols to protect cognition in vulnerable populations over time by improving cognitive performance. If you look at the underlying mechanism, the cocoa flavanols have beneficial effects for cardiovascular health and can increase cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. This structure is particularly affected by aging and therefore the potential source of age-related memory decline in humans.”
So should cocoa become a dietary supplement to improve our cognition? “Regular intake of cocoa and chocolate could indeed provide beneficial effects on cognitive functioning over time. There are, however, potential side effects of eating cocoa and chocolate. Those are generally linked to the caloric value of chocolate, some inherent chemical compounds of the cocoa plant such as caffeine and theobromine, and a variety of additives we add to chocolate such as sugar or milk.”
Nonetheless, the scientists are the first to put their results into practice: “Dark chocolate is a rich source of flavanols. So we always eat some dark chocolate. Every day.”
New research shows there might be health benefits to eating certain types of dark chocolate. Findings from two studies being presented today at the Experimental Biology 2018 annual meeting in San Diego show that consuming dark chocolate that has a high concentration of cacao (minimally 70% cacao, 30% organic cane sugar) has positive effects on stress levels, inflammation, mood, memory, and immunity. While it is well known that cacao is a major source of flavonoids, this is the first time the effect has been studied in human subjects to determine how it can support cognitive, endocrine and cardiovascular health.
Lee S. Berk, DrPH, associate dean of research affairs, School of Allied Health Professions and a researcher in psychoneuroimmunology and food science from Loma Linda University, served as principal investigator on both studies.
“For years, we have looked at the influence of dark chocolate on neurological functions from the standpoint of sugar content — the more sugar, the happier we are,” Berk said. “This is the first time that we have looked at the impact of large amounts of cacao in doses as small as a regular-sized chocolate bar in humans over short or long periods of time, and are encouraged by the findings. These studies show us that the higher the concentration of cacao, the more positive the impact on cognition, memory, mood, immunity and other beneficial effects.”
The flavonoids found in cacao are extremely potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, with known mechanisms beneficial for brain and cardiovascular health. The following results will be presented in live poster sessions during the Experimental Biology 2018 meeting:
Dark Chocolate (70% Cacao) Affects Human Gene Expression: Cacao Regulates Cellular Immune Response, Neural Signaling, and Sensory Perception
This pilot feasibility experimental trial examined the impact of 70 percent cacao chocolate consumption on human immune and dendritic cell gene expression, with a focus on pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines. Study findings show cacao consumption up-regulates multiple intracellular signaling pathways involved in T-cell activation, cellular immune response, and genes involved in neural signaling and sensory perception — the latter potentially associated with the phenomena of brain hyperplasticity.
Dark Chocolate (70% Organic Cacao) Increases Acute and Chronic EEG Power Spectral Density (μv2) Response of Gamma Frequency (25-40Hz) for Brain Health: Enhancement of Neuroplasticity, Neural Synchrony, Cognitive Processing, Learning, Memory, Recall, and Mindfulness Meditation
This study assessed the electroencephalography (EEG) response to consuming 48 g of dark chocolate (70% cacao) after an acute period of time (30 mins) and after a chronic period of time (120 mins), on modulating brain frequencies 0-40Hz, specifically beneficial gamma frequency (25-40Hz). Findings show that this superfood of 70 percent cacao enhances neuroplasticity for behavioral and brain health benefits.
Berk said the studies require further investigation, specifically to determine the significance of these effects for immune cells and the brain in larger study populations. Further research is in progress to elaborate on the mechanisms that may be involved in the cause-and-effect brain-behavior relationship with cacao at this high concentration.
Of all the treats available, chocolate is one of the most craved foods in the world. The first solid chocolate bar, made from cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar, was introduced by the British chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons in 1847, but the history of chocolate goes back at least 4,000 years.1
Pre-Olmec cultures in Mexico produced chocolate as early as 1900 B.C. Originally, it was consumed as a bitter beverage. The cacao beans were fermented, roasted, and then ground into a paste that was mixed with water and spices like chili peppers and vanilla, sweetened with honey.
Throughout its history, chocolate — “the food of the Gods” — has remained a symbol of luxury, wealth, and power. During the 14th century, the Aztecs and Mayans even used cacao beans as currency.
Research has also revealed chocolate has some rather impressive health benefits, provided you’re willing to give up the now-familiar sweetness of modern day milk chocolate.
The Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs valued cacao for its mood enhancing and aphrodisiac properties, and it was typically reserved for the ruling class.
In the 17th century, cocoa and chocolate were considered potential medicine, and historical documents in Europe reveal they were used to treat angina and heart pain.2
Not All Chocolate Is Created Equal
Raw cacao is actually quite bitter, not sweet, due to the nearly 400 polyphenols that are present. When we’re referring to the health benefits of chocolate, this is the chocolate we’re referring to. Americans consume an estimated 12 pounds of chocolate per capita each year.3
Unfortunately, the vast majority of that is in the form of milk chocolate candy, which contains very minute amounts of healthy cacao, and loads of sugar. The milk added to milk chocolate can also interfere with your body’s ability to absorb the beneficial antioxidants (polyphenols) in the chocolate.
To get off on the right foot, it may be helpful to understand the distinction between cacao, cocoa, and chocolate:4
Cacao: Refers to the plant, a small evergreen tree of the species Theobroma cacao, and its dried seeds, also known as cacao beans or cocoa beans, prior to processing.
If you’re after health benefits, raw cacao nibs are what you’re looking for. Ideally, buy them whole and grind them yourself (a coffee grinder can be used for this) when using it in recipes.
Alternatively, you can eat them whole, just like you’d eat conventional chocolate chips. A healthy amount would probably be around ½ to 1 ounce per day. I personally grind 1 tablespoon of raw cacao nibs twice a day and put them into my smoothies.
Cocoa: Refers to the roasted cacao, ground into a powder from which most of the fat has been removed.
Cocoa butter: The fat component of the cacao seed.
Chocolate: The solid food or candy made from a preparation of roasted cacao seeds; if the cacao seeds are not roasted, then you have “raw chocolate.”
When selecting chocolate, look for higher cacao and lower sugar content. In general, the darker the chocolate, the higher the cacao content.
However, since cacao is bitter, the higher the percentage cacao, the more bitter it is (the polyphenols are what make the chocolate bitter, so manufacturers often remove them. But, it’s those polyphenols that are responsible for many of chocolate’s health benefits).
To counteract the bitterness, most chocolate is sweetened, so it’s a matter of balancing nutritional benefit with palatability. For health benefits, choose chocolate with a cacao percentage of about 70 or higher.
“White chocolate” contains no cocoa at all; it’s just a health-zapping mix of pasteurized milk and sugar.
Cocoa Contains Hundreds of Health-Promoting Chemicals
Cacao’s benefits are related to naturally occurring compounds in the bean, including epicatechin (a flavonoid) and resveratrol, the former of which has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and is thought to help shield your nerve cells from damage.
Resveratrol, a potent antioxidant, is known for its neuroprotective effects. It has the ability to cross your blood-brain barrier, which allows it to moderate inflammation in your central nervous system (CNS).
This is significant because CNS inflammation plays an important role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
Recent science also shows resveratrol is an exercise mimic and produces similar benefits as exercise to the mitochondria by stimulating AMPK and PKC-1alpha which increase mitochondrial biogenesis and mitophagy.
Norman Hollenberg, a professor of medicine at Harvard who has spent years studying the Kuna people of Panama (who consume up to 40 cups of cocoa a week), believes epicatechin is so important it should be considered a vitamin.5
The Kuna have less than a 10 percent risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer anddiabetes, which are the most prevalent diseases ravaging the Western world.6
Indeed, many studies have confirmed that cacao can benefit your heart, blood vessels, brain, nervous system, and helps combat diabetes and other conditions rooted in inflammation.
One 2012 meta-analysis7 found that eating chocolate could slash your risk of cardiovascular disease by 37 percent and your stroke risk by 29 percent.
Another meta-analysis8 published that same year found that cocoa/chocolate lowered insulin resistance, reduced blood pressure, increased blood vessel elasticity, and slightly reduced LDL.
In one study,9 patients consuming 100 grams of flavanol-rich dark chocolate for 15 days showed decreased insulin resistance.
According to a paper10,11 published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, cocoa polyphenols may have specific benefits for cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases, metabolic disorders, and cancer prevention. The authors note that:
“Cocoa contains about 380 known chemicals, 10 of which are psychoactive compounds … Cocoa has more phenolics and higher antioxidant capacity than green tea, black tea, or red wine … The phenolics from cocoa may … protect against diseases in which oxidative stress is implicated as a causal or contributing factor, such as cancer.
They also have antiproliferative, antimutagenic, and chemoprotective effects, in addition to theiranticariogenic effects.”
Chocolate and Human Health
A 2013 paper12 in the Netherlands Journal of Medicine also reviews the many health benefits of cacao, noting that many consider it a “complete food,” as it contains:
Nitrogenous compounds, including proteins, methylxanthines theobromine, and caffeine (central nervous system stimulants, diuretics, and smooth muscle relaxants. Theobromine is the ingredient that can cause heartburn in some individuals; on the other hand, it also inhibits persistent cough by reducing vagus nerve activity13)
Minerals, including potassium, phosphorus, copper, iron, zinc, and magnesium
Valeric acid (which acts as a stress reducer despite the presence of stimulants)
The following table highlights the wide range of positive health benefits science suggests are conferred by the cocoa bean.14,15,16
Anti-inflammatory17(including 17 percent reduction in C-reactive protein)
As noted in the Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity paper,37 the nutrients found in raw cacao are easily altered and destroyed through processing. The bitterness of raw cacao beans is due to their high concentration of polyphenols.
To some people, cacao is virtually inedible because of its bitterness. To make it more palatable, chocolate manufacturers decrease the polyphenol content, and as a result you can find products containing anywhere from 10 to 100 percent polyphenols.
In dried fresh cacao beans, the total polyphenol content is around 15 to 20 percent, whereas fermented, non-defatted beans contain just 5 percent. The reason for this is because the fermentation process reduces epicatechin and soluble polyphenol content by as much as 20 percent; anthocyanidins are removed altogether, and procyanidins are decreased by as much as 500 percent.
The phenolic content of cocoa also varies depending on its origin. For example, Costa Rican cocoa contains more than 16.5 milligrams (mg) of catechins per gram (g), whereas Jamaican cocoa contains less than 2.7 mg per gram.
Apples May Boost Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
Many real foods, eaten as close to their natural state as possible, can be considered “superfoods.” This applies to dark chocolate as well. Interestingly, certain superfoods produce great synergy when combined,38 meaning the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. When eaten in combination, the two foods become even healthier than eating them separately, on their own.
Eating apples is associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease, an association thought to be related to their antioxidant flavonoid content,39 including the anti-inflammatory quercetin. As noted earlier, dark chocolate, which is rich in antioxidant catechins, has also been found to support heart health. When paired, dark chocolate and apples have been shown to break up blood clots, thereby reducing your risk of stroke.
There are a couple of caveats though. Since much of the antioxidant content of an apple is found in its peel, you’ll want to leave the peel on when you eat it. For this reason, look for organic apples, to avoid ingesting pesticides and other chemicals. For chocolate, the closer it is to its natural raw state, the higher its nutritional value, so look for higher cacao and lower sugar content. Your best bet is raw cacao nibs, if you can tolerate the bitterness.
Make Your Own Chocolate Treats
Based on the evidence, there’s little doubt that dark, minimally processed chocolate is a real superfood. Just don’t mistake your average chocolate bar or chocolate-covered candy for a health food! To reap the benefits, it likely needs to be at least 70 percent cacao. Better yet, opt for the raw cacao nibs. I eat about 1 ounce of raw nibs per day.
If you can’t tolerate the bitterness, use them to make your own chocolate treat, to which you can add some harmless sweeteners. In the video above, I demonstrate a recipe I created from scratch using high-quality ingredients. As you will see, there are no specific measurements, so go ahead and tweak it to your own taste.
As a base, I use raw cocoa butter and organic coconut oil. You could also use raw organic grass-fed butter in lieu of the cocoa butter. Keep in mind that these ingredients will cause the candy to melt at lower temperatures, so you will most likely need to keep it in the refrigerator to keep it from melting. Next, I add 1/8 of a cup of raw cocoa powder.
Alternatively, grind your raw cacao nibs. For sweetness, I add about 3 teaspoons of Lo-Han powder and some Stevia. Cinnamon powder, mint, vanilla and/or orange extracts can also be added for flavor.
Since the majority of these ingredients are healthy fats, and there’s no added sugar, this treat will not stimulate your insulin release like most commercial candy bars will, even those with higher cacao content. Hence you get the best of both worlds — a chocolate treat with plenty of health benefits and few if any detriments.
With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, you may want to experiment with making your own candy this year. Stores like Amazon and Michael’s sell all sorts of candy molds you can use for the occasion.
Typical chocolate delivered in our processed world is nothing more than a sweet treat. But indulging in this delicious food doesn’t have to result in negative health consequences; in fact, consuming dark chocolate hasbeen shown to actually boost health through the deliverance of various disease-fighting compounds, such as antioxidants, flavanoids, and more.
Dark chocolate isn’t equal to the processed junk served at any gas station today. This chocolate is at least 70% cocoa or cacao, and offers naturally health-boosting compounds. The more bitter the better. Anything less is too watered down with milk and saturated with unhealthful refined sugar, or worse, HFCS corn syrup.
In case you don’t know first hand yet, there are manyhealth benefits of dark chocolate, from suppressing a cough, to improving mood, to even promoting healthy weight loss.
Researchershave even reported that dark chocolate causes certain bacteria in the gut to ferment compounds and make its own anti-inflammatory compounds that are good for the heart as well as numerous other health conditions. It turns out that dark chocolate specifically, which isn’t the watered-down and high in milk-fats and sugar like milk chocolate, creates ‘good’ microbes which leads to a balanced gut flora.
To benefit most from consuming chocolate, try to choose organic, high-quality dark chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa. Similarly, avoid mainstream candies provided by companies like Hershey’s. Eating unprocessed cocoa is best, as the body can more easily process the chocolate due to lower sugar levels.
A small square of this dark wonder is all that’s needed daily to improve overall health, improve brain function, and keep your thinking clear. About Mike Barrett: Google Plus Profile| Mike is the co-founder, editor, and researcher behind Natural Society. Studying the work of top natural health activists, and writing special reports for top 10 alternative health websites, Mike has written hundreds of articles and pages on how to obtain optimum wellness through natural health.
Chocolate will not make you fat. As a matter of fact, eating high-quality dark chocolate in moderation could actually help you maintain a slimmer waistline, according to a study recently published in the journal Nutrition. This study is only the latest in a body of research linking chocolate to positive health outcomes.
The research focused on 1458 adolescents between the ages of 12.5 and 17.5 in Europe. Dietary intake was analyzed along with weight, height, and body mass index (BMI). Body fat was tested using skinfolds, and waist circumference was measured. Sexual maturation and physical activity were also analyzed.
Those adolescents who ate more chocolate were found to have lower body fat, as measured by BMI and skin folds. This finding remained even after confounding factors like age, fat intake, caloric intake, tea and coffee consumption, age, sex, and sexual maturation were taken into consideration.
The objective of the study was stated as thus:
“There is a substantial interest in the potential role of chocolate in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. It has been recently reported that a higher frequency of chocolate intake is linked to lower body mass index (BMI) in adults. The aim of the present study was to determine if higher chocolate consumption also is associated with lower BMI, as well as other markers of total and central body fat, in adolescents.”
In conclusion, they said, “Our results demonstrate that a higher chocolate consumption was associated with lower total and central fatness in European adolescents.”
Though the study didn’t seem to differentiate between various types of chocolate, dark chocolate is generally seen as the most healthful. It has less sugar, is less processed, and contains more powerful antioxidants in the cocoa bean.
Another study in 2008 found dark chocolate could reduce blood pressure and even LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Another found that those who ate dark chocolate a few times a week were slimmer than those who only ate it occasionally.
Chocolate has received a bad reputation primarily because it is included in otherwise unhealthful foods. Things like cake, muffins, and ice cream don’t only include chocolate, but plenty of sugar and processed carbohydrates. It’s the other stuff in these foods that produces ill health, not the chocolate (at least not if it’s dark).