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Where does chocolate come from?

A: The answer to this question is crucial to understanding why chocolate has healthy benefits. Because of the association of chocolate with desserts and sweets, it is often difficult for people to believe that chocolate can actually be good for you. In fact, chocolate has plant origins, and like other plants, has nutritional value.

The cocoa bean is actually an almond-shaped seed from the large fruit pods—about a foot long—of the flowering cacao tree. These seeds, which are the basic ingredient to any chocolate product, are nutritional powerhouses. The average tree can hold between 20 and 35 pods at any given time, and the pods take an average of 4 to 6 months to mature.

The cocoa bean is then generally broken into nibs and ground into a paste. The paste is then pressed, and its liquid cocoa butter is drained off and cake-like cocoa powder remains. About 10 pods (totaling between 300 and 600 seeds) produce two pounds of cocoa paste.

Most of the world’s chocolate now comes from the Ivory Coast, with Ghana and Indonesia following close behind. Brazil, Nigeria and Cameroon are also cocoa producers, though on a much smaller scale.

Has chocolate been used historically either as a medicine or healthful food staple?

A: Among the earliest people to discover the health benefits of chocolate were the Maya and their predecessors, the Olmec culture, in approximately 1,500 B.C. These ancient peoples in the Americas used the chocolate bean as the main ingredient in a bitter beverage revered for its nourishing qualities and ability to boost energy and stamina. It was also used to treat stomach and intestinal complaints, infections, fever and coughs. The drink was a mixture of fermented and roasted cocoa paste, water, chili peppers, cornmeal, and other ingredients blended into a spicy, frothy, and sugar-free health drink.

In fact, for the ancient Mesoamericans, chocolate was more than just a favored health food. It also played an important role in their religion, society and economy.

Because of its value and popularity, the cacao bean became a significant trade item for the Mayans. In fact, the Aztecs—who could not grow the cacao tree because of their dry climate—became so enamored with the bean that they often required that citizens and conquered peoples pay their tribute in cacao beans. The Aztec word for the delightsome drink—xocolatl, which means, “bitter water”—is what was eventually transformed into the modern English word, chocolate.

How did chocolate gain worldwide popularity?

A: Until the 1500s, no one outside of the New World knew anything at all about chocolate, although historical records indicate that other European explorers, including Columbus, at least encountered cacao in the Americas. It wasn’t until Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico in 1521 that the Spanish began to learn about the delicious flavor of chocolate. Cortés and his men had their first taste of the beverage from the confiscated treasure stores of the Aztecs.

Eventually, chocolate beverages gained popularity among European aristocrats and remained a status symbol for the wealthy until the chocolate candies were first mass-produced for the public in the nineteenth century.

Why are we now suddenly interested in cocoa when it has been around for such a long time?

A: Chocolate has grabbed the interest of the scientific and health communities—so much so that in February 2000, it held center stage at the Annual Meeting and Science Innovation Exposition at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and later in 2004, 2006 and 2007 at the National Academies in Washington, D.C. These meetings featured international scientists from the public and private sectors, bringing together committees of experts in all areas of science and technology.

These symposiums and the promising studies completed on cocoa in the last several years have raised the awareness of the public regarding the potential of chocolate to improve health. While some still view chocolate as a “sinful” indulgence, emerging studies seem to be changing the public view. In time, it will be common knowledge that cocoa products represent a healthful food choice for disease prevention and overall wellness.

What conditions may potentially respond to the nutrients in chocolate?

A: Numerous studies support a variety of potential health benefits from cocoa beans and dark chocolate in particular, including protection of the cardiovascular system, cellular function, cancer prevention, relief of inflammatory conditions, and improved symptoms of diabetes. To learn more of chocolate’s benefits, read the appropriate chapters in this book.

What are the key nutrients in cocoa?

A: Cocoa’s health-promoting potential can be traced back to its optimized nutritional profile. It may surprise you to learn that chocolate is rich in a variety of nutrients that give it its energy-boosting, disease-preventing properties, even rivaling the nutritional power of many commonplace fruits and vegetables. Its key ingredients include various vitamins and minerals, and perhaps its most important ingredients are its polyphenols—including catechins, flavanols and flavonoids. These compounds are proving to be potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cell-protecting health agents.

Is there any scientific research to back these claims?

A: Of course, chocolate’s health potential is backed by centuries of use around the world, but more than that, its benefits have also been the subject of several years of research. Scientific interest in cocoa has grown in recent years and continues to grow, and hundreds of published studies found in reputable medical journals support its health benefits.

Scientists have identified antioxidant activity in chocolate. What does this mean and how do we determine the antioxidant potency of cocoa and other antioxidant foods?

A: Among cocoa’s most impressive phytonutrients are several types of poly- phenols, largely recognized as some powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds known. Polyphenols can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables ranging from onions to apples, green tea, red wine and cocoa. They comprise multiple categories, including phenolic acids, simple phenols, phenylpropanoids, quinines, stilbenes, xanthones, and the largest group—flavonoids (also called bioflavonoids), which make up a majority of the polyphenol family and are further broken down in classes and subclasses such as catechins, epicatechins, proanthocyanidins and procyanidins.

Hundreds of studies have found that flavonoids possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, anticancer, and antiviral properties, as well as the ability to act like hormones (without the damaging side effects), protect and repair the liver, relax and dilate the blood vessels, modify blood platelet clotting, maintain mental function, lower the risk of different forms of dementia, fight cancer, prevent tooth cavities and other forms of oral disease, and relieve allergy symptoms, among other benefits. They also possess hypoglycemic properties that help the body utilize sugars efficiently, thereby normalizing blood sugar levels for diabetes protection and can halt free-radical damage of the eyes and extremities, where diabetes tends to take its toll.

I’ve heard that chocolate can protect the cardiovascular system. How is this possible?

A: The heart-protective effects of cocoa are probably the most documented. Dozens of studies confirm its ability to protect the heart by counteracting free-radical oxidation and blood vessel inflammation, improving blood platelet function, decreasing blood clotting, increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol, reducing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, increasing prostacyclin activity (which helps blood vessels to relax), and reducing blood pressure.

A 2007 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine analyzed the effect of tea and cocoa on blood pressure. Researchers found that the consumption of foods rich in cocoa may reduce blood pressure, while tea appeared to have no effect. In fact, the benefits of the cocoa on blood pressure were similar to those of standard pharmaceutical prescriptions, including beta-blockers.

The lowered risk for cardiovascular disease could not be explained simply by lowered blood pressure, and researchers attributed the reduced risk to a myriad of cocoa’s benefits including improvements in the function of blood vessels, lower blood-glucose levels, lower platelet function, improved cholesterol levels, decreased oxidation of blood lipids, and reduced activity of inflammatory components such as cytokines.

These findings are supported by findings from numerous other studies. In fact, a team of scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed close to 140 studies completed on the relationship of chocolate and cocoa to cardiovascular health. The research team concluded that chocolate is a major source of flavonoids (epicatechins, catechins, and procyanidins), and found that the principal fat in chocolate—stearic acid—did not have adverse effects on blood vessels, cholesterol levels or overall cardiovascular health because it is metabolized differently than other saturated fats. The authors concluded that regular consumption of chocolate should decrease the risk of cardiovascular-related conditions, and recommended long-term studies to confirm this.

Can cocoa help in the treatment of diabetes?

A: Chocolate’s heart-protective benefits may also be helpful to individuals with diabetes. It is well known that the majority of diabetes-related deaths result from cardiovascular conditions such as atherosclerosis, infarction, stroke and peripheral vascular disease.

Elevated blood sugar levels causes micro blood vessel damage, which ultimately causes scarring and blood vessel blockage. This damage causes neuropathy (pain in the nerves) and edema (water in the tissues) in extremities, which can lead to ulcerations and amputations. It also causes kidney damage (nephropathy) and even blindness (retinopathy).

Researchers from Italy have recently reported that oxidative stress is the underlying cause of insulin resistance, glucose intolerance and diabetes. If this is the case, antioxidant-rich foods like cocoa may help treat and prevent the disease.

A 2005 study from the University of L’Aquila in Italy and Tufts University suggests that flavonols present in chocolate can protect the cardiovascular system and can improve the utilization of insulin in diabetic patients. The findings indicate that flavonols can lower blood pressure and lower overall blood fat levels. The researchers also discovered that even short-term administration of dark chocolate could result in significant improvement in insulin sensitivity (insulin resistance is a key problem in type-2 diabetes). Flavonoids help type-2 diabetics mitigate insulin resistance, thus lowering and regulating blood sugar.

A recent article in the Journal of Nutrition discusses the protection that cocoa polyphenols can provide against after-meal oxidative stress. The authors explain that nutritional oxidative stress occurs because there is an imbalance between the body’s pro-oxidant load and its antioxidant defense. This is a consequence of excessive intake of free radicals or of inadequate supply of antioxidants. This imbalance contributes, of course, to a higher risk of cardiovascular problems—and diabetes. This stress can be reduced by the ingestion of dietary polyphenols or antioxidants found in chocolate.

My doctor told me that inflammation is a key contributor to my joint pain. Can cocoa treat inflammation?

A: Although cocoa’s effect on inflammation has not been the subject of many studies, most scientists in the field of chocolate research agree that one of cocoa’s primary benefits is its ability to prevent or even reverse inflammatory response in the body.

In a 2005 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers discovered that epicatechin and other flavanols found in cocoa proved to be effective at inhibiting the action of leukotrienes, inflammatory messengers that can be a key contributor to inflammation-related conditions when produced in excess. Flavonoids also reduce inflammation by inhibiting cyclooxygenase (COX-2), inflammatory cytokines and interleukin-1 beta. A recent review of cocoa research found that cocoa is indeed a potent anti-inflammatory agent.

Can chocolate provide benefits to those suffering from autoimmune diseases such as lupus, ulcerative colitis and fibromyalgia?

A: Cocoa does show potential as an immune modulator, which may be helpful in the treatment of lupus, colitis, arthritis, eczema and other autoimmune diseases. People diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome are quite often told to avoid chocolate because of the sugar, caffeine, and fats in it. However, recent research on chronic fatigue suggests that the chemicals in cocoa like theobromine, tyramine, tryptophan-serotonin, endorphins, and anandamide decrease anxiety and boost energy levels while reducing inflammation and pain. These same properties can also benefit those suffering with other autoimmune disorders. A 2006 study found that cocoa’s flavanol content may make it a viable treatment for and possibly prevent a broad array of chronic diseases resulting from dysfunctional inflammatory responses, like fibromyalgia, colitis and lupus.

Is it true that chocolate can increase energy and act as an aphrodisiac?

A: Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which is also known as the “love chemical” known for increasing a sense of well-being and contentment. In fact, it is reported that Casanova often ate chocolate because of its aphrodisiac properties. It is believed to work by making the brain release endorphins, the main source of chocolate’s pleasure and mood enhancers.

Chocolate also contains anandamide, which promotes feelings of well- being and may be responsible for the “runner’s high” common to many endurance athletes. Cocoa also has the two metabolites of anandamide, both of which help maintain the effect longer in the body. The cocoa bean also is one of the best natural sources of the amino acid arginine, a natural sexual stimulant.

Cocoa’s theobromine content mildly stimulates the central nervous system and provides additional energy, as well as possibly boosting female libido.Theobromine is also a cousin of caffeine, but does not have the side effects associated with caffeine.

I have heard that cocoa can improve mental function. Is this true?

A: Cocoa’s natural dopamine content not only elevates moods, but also is attributed with boosting concentration levels and mental acuity. Its MAO inhibitor action may explain its benefits for those with ADHD and it possible help in preventing neurodegenerative diseases.

A recent study from Wheeling Jesuit University involved different groups of volunteers who consumed different forms of chocolate—milk, dark, carob—as well as a control group who consumed no chocolate. The researchers conducted different neuropsychological tests to determine cognitive performance—memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem solving. The chocolate groups scored much higher on verbal and visual memory, impulse control and reaction time. While the study was very limited, it suggests that the chemicals in chocolate may improve overall mental function.

A recent human study provided exciting results regarding the possible brain-friendly effects of cocoa. Researchers from the University of Nottingham, Britain, found that consumption of a cocoa drink rich in flavanols boosts blood flow to key areas of the brain for two to three hours. This effect is believed to be the result of increased dilation in the brain’s blood vessels, which permits more blood, oxygen and other nutrients to reach key areas of the brain.

Can chocolate really help me lose weight?

A: Japanese researchers have discovered that regular cocoa consumption may prevent obesity and weight gain by regulating the genes involved in fat metabolism. The researchers fed two groups of rats different high-fat diets—one high in real cocoa and the other without the cocoa supplement. After twenty-one days, the researchers measured the white adipose fat weight and blood fat levels of each rat, as well as the gene expression profiles. Body weight, adipose fat weight and blood-lipid levels were also lower in the cocoa group. It appears that chocolate helps to restrict fat metabolism and storage, while stimulating thermogenesis or fat burning in the body. Scientists concluded that cocoa flavanols could prevent weight-gain and obesity related to a high-fat diet.