Everybody loves chocolate, but few people know of its ancient roots, cultural significance, and serious superfood benefits...
Turns out, the cacao tree was cultivated more than 3,000 years ago by the Aztec, Toltec, and Mayan people who lived in what is now modern day Mexico, Central America, and South America. These civilizations often prepared a ceremonial beverage from the cacao tree’s fruit, a.k.a. the cocoa or cacao bean; and they even used the cacao bean as currency. Mayans also considered cacao to be sacred, calling it the “food of the gods” and burying high ranking members of society with bowls of it for use in the afterlife.
Today, chocolate may not seem like an obvious “health food,” given its association with cakes, cookies, and other not-so-nutritious fare—but true cocoa, which is simply a roasted and ground form of the cacao bean, is potently nutritious and a rich source of polyphenol antioxidants called flavanols, plus a range of other micronutrients. Together, these compounds have been associated with improved cardiovascular health, cognitive benefits, and more.
Here’s a look at some of the most exciting potential health benefits of high quality cocoa.
4 Health Benefits Supported By Cocoa (a.k.a. Cacao)
1 Better overall cardiovascular health.
Cocoa is a rich source of polyphenol antioxidants, particularly a subclass of polyphenols called flavanols—known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Researchers also believe it’s these flavanols that contribute to cocoa’s blood pressure-lowering effect. In fact, a 2017 research review of more than 30 studies found that consuming flavanol-rich cocoa was consistently associated with a small but significant decrease in blood pressure.
Specifically, researchers say cocoa flavanols increase nitric oxide production in the blood, which causes vasodilation (an expansion of the blood vessels) and allows for easier blood flow—thus lowering blood pressure. Scientists believe that cocoa’s beneficial effects on blood vessels and blood flow may also be why cocoa consumption is associated with a lower risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.
2 Enhanced brain health and memory
For the same reason consuming cocoa helps lower blood pressure (increased nitric oxide production, which expands blood vessels), it also improves blood flow to the brain, which may boost cognitive health. A 2008 study found that regular consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa was associated with a 10% increase in cerebral blood flow after two weeks, which, according to the study authors, make it a potentially promising treatment for conditions such as dementia.
Other research builds on this theory, with a 2014 study finding that cocoa flavanol consumption was associated with enhanced functioning in an area of the hippocampus associated with age-related memory decline. Experts say cocoa flavanols also seem to help brain cells make connections (so they can communicate better) and protect brain cells from toxins and inflammation.
3 Improved mood and focus.
Chocolate has long been considered a feel-good, stress-busting comfort food, and research suggests there’s more to this mood-boosting effect than awesome flavor. For one, cocoa contains phenylethylamine, a compound associated with feelings of euphoria and improved focus. It also contains the amino acid tryptophan, which happens to be a precursor to serotonin—a neurotransmitter that keeps your mood balanced and anxiety levels in check.
But that’s not all! Cocoa is a great natural source of magnesium. Feelings of apathy, depression, agitation, confusion, and anxiety have all been linked to low magnesium intake, while increasing magnesium intake has been shown to help people cope with stress. Cocoa also contains theobromine, a mildly stimulating compound that may be partly responsible for the subtle improvements in mood and alertness associated with eating chocolate.
4 Reduced diabetes risk.
Even though it’s typically associated with sweet foods, cocoa itself doesn’t contain sugar—and, according to a 2017 research review, its flavonoid compounds have even been associated with reduced blood sugar, improved insulin sensitivity, and a reduction in inflammation. This, in turn, may help reduce risk of type 2 diabetes. More research is needed, but cocoa may exert these positive effects, in part, by reducing oxidative stress, slowing down carb digestion, and improving the health and functioning of blood vessels.
Why Cocoa Is Considered A Superfood
Nutritional analysis shows that cocoa is an exceptionally rich source of polyphenol antioxidant compounds called flavanols—which, research suggests, are largely to thank for cocoa’s beneficial cardiovascular, cognitive, and metabolic effects. Beyond flavanols, cocoa also contains meaningful levels of health-boosting compounds and micronutrients including theobromine, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, and copper. Together, these compounds make cocoa one delicious superfood.
Bottom Line On Cocoa
Not only is cocoa delicious, it’s got some pretty solid science to support eating more of it! A range of studies suggest cocoa’s flavanols may help improve cardiovascular health, enhance cognitive functioning, and reduce diabetes risk; while compounds like theobromine and magnesium can help improve mood.