Health benefits associated with the cocoa bean, the
seed of the Theobroma cacao tree, Greek for “food of the gods,” have
made headlines in recent months, much to the delight of chocolate lovers. Cocoa,
the primary component of chocolate, is a rich source of epicatechin, a flavonol
believed to be responsible for the health benefits of chocolate. Teas (green and
black) and red wine are also noted for their epicatechin content, but cocoa has
a higher epicatechin concentration. (1)
invigorating and health-promoting qualities. (2) The Kuna Indians provide modern
day evidence of this ancient folklore. The Kuna live on the San Blas islands,
off the coast of Panama. Their traditional diet is high in sodium yet they show
little to no rise in blood pressure with age. (3) Norman Hollenberg, professor
of medicine at Harvard Medical School, observed Kuna people who drink up to 40
cups of cocoa per week. Dr. Hollenberg noted that among the Kuna, rates of
stroke, heart disease, cancer and diabetes are less than 10 percent of their
frequency in mainland Panama. (4) Nutrition expert Daniel Fabricant, vice
president of scientific affairs at the Natural Products Association, said:
“It may be that these diseases are the result of epicatechin deficiency.”
According to Hollenberg, epicatechin in cocoa should be considered essential in
the diet, and classified as a vitamin. (5)
Dr. Hollenberg is not the first to
investigate the health benefits associated with cocoa. A number of clinical
trials indicate that cocoa consumption is associated with decreased risk of
cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reduced
clot formation, improved blood vessel function, and lower insulin
One characteristic of cardiovascular disease
is atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Studies have shown flavonols
in cocoa appear to benefit blood vessel function by influencing the production
of nitric oxide, a molecule that helps regulate blood vessel tone. Two studies
testing dark chocolate and cocoa found significant improvement in overall blood
vessel function in healthy volunteers. (6,7)
A recent German study published in the
Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology suggests that drinking cocoa rich in
flavonols can reverse impairment in the function of blood vessels, such as that
caused by atherosclerosis. (8) The participants (all smokers) were given cocoa
drinks made with different levels of flavonols and significant effects on blood
flow were seen after two hours. Blood vessel function improved in proportion to
flavonol concentration and could be correlated with that of a person with no
known cardiovascular risk factors. The improvement was sustained while
participants continued to drink the cocoa. However, after a week of not drinking
it, their blood vessel performance returned to previous levels.
of flavonol-rich dark chocolate has also been shown to decrease blood pressure
and insulin resistance in healthy subjects, as well as in persons with
hypertension. (9,10) Cardiovascular benefits of dark versus white chocolate were
evaluated in hypertensive volunteers by Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, a senior scientist
at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, and colleagues
at the University of L’Aquila in Italy. (10) White chocolate was used as
the control because it contains all of the ingredients and calories found in
dark chocolate, but without the flavonoids. A decrease in both systolic and
diastolic blood pressure was observed in the dark chocolate group after 15 days.
Blood pressure did not decrease in the white chocolate group. The dark chocolate
group also experienced a reduction in insulin resistance, and levels of LDL or
“bad” cholesterol dropped by about 10 percent in the dark chocolate
group, but stayed the same in the white chocolate group. Cocoa and dark
chocolate may also favorably affect HDL or “good” cholesterol
levels. (11) A combination of flavonol-rich cocoa and low-dose aspirin was shown
to enhance the antiplatelet function of aspirin. (12)
Given its healthful properties and great
taste, it’s no wonder cocoa has been a popular food since it was first
made into a chocolate drink by the Olmec Indians, around 1500 BC. Today,
Americans consume an average of about 12 pounds of chocolate per person, per
year. While milk chocolate is still the favorite, the health-promoting qualities
of flavonols are attributed to the dark variety. Nature’s Sweet Life
Raspberry Cardio Dark Chocolate and Calcium Crunch Dark Chocolate offer all of
the benefits of dark chocolate, and as they are sweetened with low-calorie,
low-carb, all-natural xylitol, you can indulge to your heart’s
Chang Yong Lee. Cocoa Has More Phenolic Phytochemicals and a Higher Antioxidant
Capacity than Teas and Red Wine. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry
2003; 51(25) 7292–7295.
humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. J.
Nutr 2000; 130:2057S-2072S.
intake, and hypertension in the Kuna of Panama. Hypertension 1997; 29:171-6.
Does Flavonol Intake Influence Mortality from Nitric Oxide-Dependent Processes?
Ischemic Heart Disease, Stroke, Diabetes Mellitus, and Cancer in Panama. Int J
Med Sci 2007; 4:53-58.
rethink on the cards? March 2007; page 5.
improves endothelial function and increases plasma epicatechin concentrations in
healthy adults. J Am Coll Nutr 2004 23: 197-204.
in flavan-3-ols. JAMA 2003 290:1030-1.
Rassaf T, Kelm M, Sies H. Sustained increase in flow-mediated dilation after
daily intake of high-flavonol cocoa drink over 1 week. Journal of Cardiovascular
Pharmacology 2007; 49(2):74-80.
dark chocolate is followed by a significant increase in insulin sensitivity and
a decrease in blood pressure in healthy persons. Am J Clin Nutr 2005; 81:611-4.
and insulin resistance and improves endothelium-dependent vasodilation in
hypertensives. Hypertension 2005; 46: 1-8.
chocolate on LDL oxidative susceptibility and prostaglandin concentrations in
humans. Am J Clin Nutr 2001; 74:596-602.
cocoa and aspirin on ex vivo platelet function. Thromb Res 2002; 106:191-7.