Health Benefits of Cacao – Part II
Posted August 20, 2009on:
You may be surprised to learn that cocoa is actually a FRUIT – and even more surprised to learn that it is actually one of the most healthy fruits commonly eaten by man!
Recent research studies have shown a link between cocoa and cardiovascular health, with reduced risk of blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks.
Cornell University food scientists discovered that cocoa powder has nearly twice the antioxidants of red wine, and up to three times the antioxidants found in green tea.
Raw cocoa has the highest antioxidant value of all the natural foods in the world!
The ORAC score per 100 grams of unprocessed raw cacao is 28,000, compared to 18,500 for Acai Berries, 1,540 for Strawberries, and only 1,260 for raw Spinach. The ORAC score for a typical manufactured Dark Chocolate is an impressive 13,120 – although one unique, organic, and non-roasted brand of Dark Chocolate has a much higher ORAC score. But for Milk Chocolate the ORAC score is much lower at 6,740.
Cocoa also appears to have anti-aging and anti-inflammatory properties. And cocoa is a good source of the minerals magnesium, sulphur, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, and manganese; plus some of the B Vitamins.
When heart problems occur, magnesium is the most likely mineral to be missing in the person’s diet.
Cocoa has a high content of the “beauty” mineral, sulfur. Sulfur helps build strong nails and hair, promotes healthy and beautiful skin, helps detoxify the liver, and supports healthy functioning of the pancreas.
Fresh cocoa beans are super-rich in the type of bioflavonoid called flavanols which are strong antioxidants that help maintain healthy blood flow and blood pressure. The heart-healthy flavanols in cocoa, especially the epicatechins, prevent fatty substances in the bloodstream from oxidizing and then clogging the arteries.
Flavanols help make blood platelets less likely to stick together and cause blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes – without the negative side effects associated with the use of aspirin (ASA) and other pharmaceutical blood-thinners.
Cocoa beans contain 10,000 milligrams (10 grams) of flavanol antioxidants per 100 grams – or an amazing 10% antioxidant concentration level! When it comes to supplying your body with effective antioxidants, no other natural food can even come close. No exotic super-fruit like Acai berries, no high-antioxidant fruits like prunes or blueberries, and no vegetables. The antioxidants in cocoa are easily absorbed by the human body, and are more stable and long-lasting than those in any other foods.
Cocoa also contains the amino acid Tryptophan which makes the neurotransmitter known as serotonin, which promotes positive feelings and helps keep us from feeling depressed. Cocoa contains the neurotransmitters dopamine, and phenylethylamine (PEA), and contains anandamide and MAO Inhibitors – which make this heart-healthy food a healthy food for the brain too.
Phenylethylamine (PEA) helps promote mental alertness and the ability to concentrate. The PEA in healthy chocolate can be of help to students taking tests, and to senior citizens who want to retain the mental capacity of a younger person and postpone the onset of dementia.
Studies have indicated that consuming dark chocolate produced an increased sensitivity to insulin (which indicates a protective effect against diabetes).
While you may have believed that cocoa and chocolate were “bad for you”, the truth is that THE RIGHT KIND OF CHOCOLATE provides many health benefits that make it not only “good for you” but better for your body than most of the fruits and vegetables your mother made you eat when you were a child.
Eating a healthy dark chocolate provides a sweet, sensual, sin-free pleasure, as well as some significant health benefits. A heart-felt gift of healthy dark chocolate to a loved one offers a heart-warming, delightfully delicious treat, as well as a super heart-healthy food that promotes a longer and healthier life.
If the pharmaceutical industry managed to produce a patented product that offered all the health benefits of cocoa, they would likely proclaim it a “miracle drug”! But since cocoa is widely available, is relatively inexpensive, and does not require you to pay for a doctor’s prescription nor pay fees to a dispensing pharmacy, you are not likely to hear many members of the medical establishment recommending chocolate for its many health benefits.
You may also be surprised to learn that dark chocolate can help you lose weight! Because it has appetite-suppressant properties, cocoa is often added to weight loss products to help control hunger.
While you may have been told that chocolate is “fattening”, the truth is that the fats found in cocoa butter are actually healthy fats! Cacao contains oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat which is also found in olive oil and is believed to raise the level of the “good cholesterol” known as HDL cholesterol (the acronym HDL stands for “High Density Lipid”).
Healthy chocolate can be of great benefit to tobacco smokers – but not just because they need lots of the antioxidants which neutralize the free radicals generated by the toxic compounds in tobacco smoke. A recent study in Switzerland indicated that dark chocolate may help prevent hardening of the arteries.
A 2006 clinical study by Swiss researchers found that within minutes of consuming dark chocolate, their test group of 20 smokers experienced a significant improvement in the function of the endothelial cells which line the artery walls. Smoking tobacco has long been linked to hardening of the arteries and an increase in the production of clot-forming platelets in the blood.
Raw cocoa beans contain over 300 chemically identifiable compounds. This makes cocoa one of the most complex food substances on Earth!
List of Healthy Substances Found in Raw Chocolate (Theobroma Cacao)
Many of the natural chemical compounds in raw cocoa or cacao beans and in organic dark chocolate have been discussed in scientific literature as being pharmacologically significant to health. Here is a partial list of these active substances in natural organic chocolate (and more are discussed below).
- Anandamide (a neurotransmitter known as “the bliss chemical”)
- Arginine (nature’s aphrodisiac)
- Dopamine (a neurotransmitter)
- Epicatechins (antioxidants)
- Magnesium (for healthy heart function)
- Serotonin (anti-stress neurotransmitter)
- Tryptophan (anti-depressant amino acid)
- Phenylethylamine (PEA) (controls the ability to focus attention and stay alert)
- Polyphenols (antioxidants)
Magnesium – the Mineral Your Heart Needs
Is dark chocolate good for your heart? Research by Dr. Bernard Jensen indicates that the heart muscle requires these two minerals more than any other minerals: Magnesium and Potassium. In the heart muscle Magnesium is concentrated eighteen times greater than in the bloodstream. Magnesium helps regulate blood pressure and the heartbeat.
The overall strength and vigor of the heart muscle and its ability to pump effectively is enhanced by the presence of Magnesium, and this important mineral also decreases blood coagulation and thus can lower blood pressure.
Magnesium also balances brain chemistry, and helps build strong bones.
When heart problems occur, Magnesium is the most likely mineral to be missing in the person’s diet.
Eighty percent of Americans are deficient in Magnesium. This deficiency is linked to hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, joint problems, and PMT.
Cocoa beans and organic dark chocolate are the #1 best food sources of this heart-supporting mineral, Magnesium. Can you see how a guilt-free daily dose of Magnesium-rich healthy chocolate could actually help lower your risk of heart disease?
Anti-Depressant Properties of Cocoa and Healthy Dark Chocolate
Cocoa is a potent source of serotonin, dopamine, and phenylethylamine. These are three well-studied neurotransmitters which help alleviate depression and are associated with feelings of well-being.
Cocoa contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO Inhibitors) which help improve our mood because they allow serotonin and dopamine to remain in the bloodstream longer without being broken down.
Cocoa also contains anandamide which stimulates blissful feelings. Cocoa also contains B vitamins, which are associated with brain health.
Vascular Health Promoting Properties of Cocoa and Healthy Dark Chocolate
Nitric Oxide (NO)
One research study discovered that a substance in cocoa helps the body process nitric oxide (a chemical compound designated as NO, where N = 1 Nitrogen atom, and O = 1 Oxygen atom). Nitric oxide or NO is a critical component in healthy blood flow and blood pressure control.
Vascular diseases, including Erectile Dysfunction (ED) which is common in men over age 40, are connected to the inability of an artery to make the simple but fundamental chemical called nitric oxide (NO). It appears that flavanols help reverse that problem. Thus eating healthy chocolate might help men over 40 to enjoy a more active sex life without having to rely on expensive drugs like Viagra™ or Celebrex™ or those many herbal concoctions which are touted in millions of unwanted emails.
Another research study showed that a type of bioflavonoid called flavanols in cocoa prevent fatty substances in the bloodstream from oxidizing and then clogging the arteries. Flavanols also make blood platelets less likely to stick together and cause blood clots.
Researchers are excited by the potential of flavanols to ward off vascular disease, which can cause hypertension (high blood pressure), heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and even dementia.
Antioxidant Properties of Cocoa and Healthy Dark Chocolate
Scientists have known for years that cocoa/cacao contains significant antioxidants, but no one knew just how rich they were in comparison to those found in two other healthy foods – red wine and green tea.
According to research cited in The New York Times, fresh cocoa beans are super-rich in the type of flavonoid called flavanols (not flavOnols) which are very strong antioxidants. Cocoa/cacao beans contain 10,000 milligrams (10 grams) of flavanol antioxidants per 100 grams – or an amazing 10% antioxidant concentration level!
Recent research has demonstrated that the antioxidants found in cacao beans are highly stable and easily available to the human metabolism. Of all known foods, cacao is also the ONLY food which does NOT lose its Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC) over significant periods of time. This makes cocoa both the most POTENT source of antioxidants and a source of the most USABLE antioxidants found in any natural food.
Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals and keep them from damaging the DNA and mitochondria of the body’s cells, which is a major cause of many degenerative diseases, cancer tumors, heart disease, and premature aging. Cells with damaged DNA cannot reproduce healthy new cells, but will reproduce damaged or malignant cells.
Cornell University food scientists discovered that cocoa powder has nearly twice the antioxidants of red wine, and up to three times the antioxidants found in green tea.
Their findings were published in an article entitled “Cocoa Has More Phenolic Phytochemicals and a Higher Antioxidant Capacity than Teas and Red Wine“, published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, a peer-reviewed publication.
The Cornell researchers, led by Chang Y. Lee, chairman of the Department of Food Science and Technology at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY, state the reason that cocoa leads the other drinks is its high content of antioxidant compounds called phenolic phytochemicals, or flavonoids.
A class of flavonoids known as flavanols or flavan-3-ols includes: catechin, epicatechin, and epigallocatechin. All three are found naturally in the cocoa bean. (Note that flavanols are NOT the same as another very similar-sounding class of flavonoids known as flavonols, which includes: myricetin, quercetin and kaempferol.)
The Cornell researchers discovered 611 milligrams of the phenolic compound gallic acid equivalents (GAE) and 564 milligrams of the flavonoid epicatechin equivalents (ECE) in a single serving of cocoa. Examining a glass of red wine, the researchers found 340 milligrams of GAE and 163 milligrams of ECE. In a cup of green tea, they found 165 milligrams of GAE and 47 milligrams of ECE.
By comparison, 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate delivers as many antioxidants as five ounces of red wine.
That makes cocoa one of the richest sources of antioxidants in any food!
Compare the raw cocoa bean’s 10,000 milligrams of flavanols per 100 grams to other forms of commercial chocolate…
Processed cocoa powder (defatted and roasted cocoa beans treated with potassium carbonate) and chocolate candy range in flavanol content from the more common concentration of 500 milligrams of flavanols per 100 grams of normal chocolate bars, to a concentration of 5,000 milligrams (5 grams) of flavanols per 100 grams of Cocoapro cocoa powder from the Mars Corporation.
Neither comes close to the high concentration of flavanol antioxidants in raw cocoa/cacao beans – 10 grams of flavanols per 100 grams.
ORAC Score – A Measure of Antioxidant Quality
The current standard for testing and measuring the antioxidant properties of various foods is called the ORAC Score. ORAC is an abbreviation for “Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity” – which is a measure of the amount of free radicals that can be neutralized by a certain mass of a food substance (usually cited as “per gram” or “per 100 grams” of the food substance).
The higher the ORAC score, the higher the concentration of antioxidants present in the food. (Source: US Department of Agriculture / Journal of the American Chemical Society.)
Free radicals are molecules that are missing one or more electrons and are therefore chemically imbalanced with a positive electrical charge. They are created in several kinds of chemical reactions which take place in our bodies, such as when we burn energy by working our muscles. To balance their charge, these radical molecules will seek to attract or “steal” electrons from other molecules – including the molecules which make up the DNA in your body’s cells which is the blueprint for producing new cells, and the mitochondria in your cells which create the energy to sustain the cells.
Cells with damaged mitochondria are weak and have lower energy and less resistance to disease. When the DNA of a cell is damaged by the action of free radicals, the result is the creation of imperfect new cells – or even malignant new cells which form tumors and cancers.
Free radicals are the cause of most degenerative diseases, premature aging, and the creation of cancer cells.
Antioxidants are molecules which have one or more extra electrons and are chemically imbalanced with a negative electrical charge, so they can attract and “donate” an electron to a positively-charged free radical molecule, which balances its electrical charge and thus neutralizes it. So that “thieving” radical molecule which is now electrically balanced no longer needs to “steal” electrons from the molecules which form our body’s cells.
Thus the more antioxidant molecules we have in our body, the more free radicals are neutralized, and the less damage is done to our cells. By preventing the damage to our DNA and mitochondria, antioxidants can stop and even reverse the aging process, and help prevent all kinds of degenerative diseases and cancers.
The ORAC value rates the capacity of the substance to prevent oxidation, i.e. its effectiveness as an antioxidant. It might help to compare the oxidation of molecules in our body to the oxidation of iron in an automobile – which we call “rusting”. Oxidized or “rusted” iron becomes brittle and weak, and eventually breaks down into a reddish-brown dust known as iron oxide. You could say that our bodies are “rusting out” from oxidation by free radicals! Ashes to ashes, and rust to dust!
But our bodies can be protected from this rusting by the antioxidants we get from eating natural foods which have a high ORAC value. Many natural foods have been supplying human bodies with those protective antioxidants since we first evolved, but the problem today is that we are not eating many natural foods! We consume far too many processed foods and junk foods which have had the protective antioxidants proocessed out of them! So we suffer more and more from many diseases such as cancer and heart disease, which were relatively rare problems for our ancestors who were eating nothing but whole foods fresh from the farm.
It’s very difficult today to avoid eating processed foods with inferior nutritional value, but we can at least try to eat enough whole foods (like cocoa or high-antioxidant fruits) or health supplements that supply us with enough antioxidants to protect us from degenerative diseases and the ravages of aging. We don’t have to grow old before our time, or suffer painful ailments, or die from horrible diseases that could have been prevented.
While the general public may be aware that they need to eat more raw fruits to get a good supply of antioxidants, the fruits most commonly eaten by North Americans are fairly low on the ORAC scale. Cantaloupe, banana, apple, apricot, peach, pear, and watermelon all have an ORAC score of less than 251 per 100 grams. No wonder the average North American is not getting enough antioxidants in his or her daily diet.
Even milk chocolate with its ORAC score of 6,740 provides significantly more antioxidants per gram than most of the commonly consumed fruits and vegetables – and more than even the top scoring fruits like prunes (5,770), pomegranate (3,307), blueberries (2,400) and blackberries (2,036).
The daily diet of the average North American only scores 1,000 to 1,500 on the ORAC scale. Nutrition experts tell us that it should be at least 3,000 to 5,000 ORAC. Some say it should be even more than 5,000.
Eating healthy chocolate, with its super-high ORAC value, can be an efficient and enjoyable way to boost your daily dose of antioxidants and reduce the ravages of free radicals.
Be careful not to assume that ALL organic chocolate or dark chocolate products (or any processed food product) are “healthy” just because they claim to contain ingredients which are known to have a high ORAC score. It does NOT necessarily mean that the finished product you are consuming will have a high ORAC score too.
There are several factors that can affect the actual ORAC score of a finished food product such as dark chocolate:
(1) how it is processed (excessive heat can destroy flavanols and reduce the amount of available antioxidants, which lowers the ORAC value),
(2) how much of the high ORAC ingredients are actually in the product,
(3) how some ingredients affect the ORAC score of other ingredients (e.g. adding milk to cocoa lowers its effective ORAC score to a little more than half because dairy products tend to block the absorption of the antioxidant flavanols in the cocoa).
Only ONE company (which markets a variety of truly healthy chocolate products) actually dares to show you an independent laboratory’s ORAC score per serving of its finished products right on their packaging (see “The Healthiest Chocolate” below) – so “what you see is what you get”.
For the reasons given above, all other chocolate makers seem unwilling to let you know the actual ORAC score of the products they are selling you. One might wonder if their effective ORAC score is too low to really be considered a “healthy” chocolate product?
Table of ORAC Values for Common Foods
Here is a comparison of the ORAC score per 100 grams for some common foods known to have a high antioxidant level, listed in descending order.
- Unprocessed Raw Cacao – ORAC 28,000
- Acai Berries* – ORAC 18,500
- Dark Chocolate – ORAC 13,120
- Milk Chocolate – ORAC 6,740
- Prunes – 5,770
- Wolfberry Juice – 3,472
- Pomegranates – 3,307
- Raisins – 2,830
- Blueberries – 2,400
- Blackberries – 2,036
- Garlic – 1,939
- Kale – 1,770
- Cranberries – 1,750
- Strawberries – 1,540
- Tahitian Noni Juice – 1,506
- Raw Spinach – 1,260
- Raspberries – 1,220
- Brussels Sprouts – 980
- Plums – 949
- Alfalfa Sprouts – 930
- Steamed Spinach – 909
- Broccoli – 890
- Beets – 840
- Avocado – 782
- Oranges – 750
- Red Grapes – 739
- Red Bell Pepper – 710
- Cherries – 670
- Pink Grapefruit – 495
- Kidney Beans – 460
- Onion – 450
- Corn – 400
- Cauliflower – 385
- Frozen Peas – 375
- Potato – 300
- Cabbage – 295
- Banana – 210
- Carrot – 200
- Apple – 207
- Tomato – 195
- Peach – 170
- Lima Beans – 136
- Pear – 110
(*ORAC for Acai as determined by Brunswick Laboratories, USA.)
This will be important new information for millions of children and teenagers who hate the taste of brussel sprouts or broccoli. Now they can advise Mom that dark chocolate is a much healthier alternate source of antioxidants!
When comparing the antixodidant value (ORAC value) of foods you may actually be eating on a regular basis, another consideration is antioxidant value per calorie. What foods provide a healthy source of antioxidants without also providing too many calories from carbs and fats? Dark chocolate, in spite of the sweetener added to overcome the bitterness of raw cocoa, is actually one of the better providers of antioxidants per calorie!
One hundred grams of healthy dark chocolate (more than you would normally eat) provides 13,120 ORAC units of antioxidants and 552 calories of energy – which works out to 24 ORAC units per calorie.
That gives dark chocolate a better ORAC/calorie ratio than brussels sprouts (23), beets (20), plums (17), oranges (16), cauliflower (15), cherries (13), onions (12), cabbage (12), red grapes (10), tomato (9), head lettuce (9), string beans (6), potato (5), frozen peas (5), corn (5), carrot (5), apple (4), tofu (3), baked beans (3), pear (2), banana (2), or lima beans (1). In other words, if you are looking to increase your antioxidant intake from natural fruits and vegetables while consuming the least calories, eating a healthy dark chocolate is actually a lower-calorie source than all the common foods in this list!
And the ORAC per calorie ratio for dark chocolate (24) is about the SAME as two of the top antioxidant fruits – prunes (24) and raspberries (25). So it’s not necessary to worry about getting too many calories when consuming healthy dark chocolate as`a supplemental source of antioxidants, because you don’t need to eat very much dark chocolate`to absorb more antioxidants than you would get from many common fruits`and vegetables!
Can Chocolate Help You Be Happy?
We have all heard how chocolate can be a “comfort food” to help us cope with stress and depression and general unhappiness. There might actually be some connection between chocolate and happiness, when we look at certain chemicals which are found naturally in the cocoa/cacao bean and which can affect parts of the brain.
Phenylethylamine (PEA) in Cocoa
PEA is a chemical found in cocoa/cacao beans which increases the activity of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) in certain areas of the brain which control the ability to focus attention and stay alert. Elevated PEA levels occur naturally when we are captivated by a movie or good book, or are wholly focused on a project or task – when we lose track of time and are not consciously unaware of what is happening around us.
PEA is found in higher levels in the brains of happy people. Cocoa or dark chocolate has been found to contain up to 2.2 percent PEA (phenylethylamine).
Anandamide (The Bliss Chemical) in Cocoa
Anandamide (or n-arachidonoylethanolamine) is a neurotransmitter which has been isolated in cocoa in quantities which are significant enough to affect the brain. Anandamide is a cannabinoid naturally found in the human brain. Anandamide is a lipid (a fat) known as “the bliss chemical” because it is released when we are feeling good. (Anandamide is the English spelling; anandamine is the French spelling.)
It is true that anandamide has a similar effect to the compound THC in cannabis (marijuana), but it acts in a different way; acts only on certain groups of brain cells and not the whole brain; and thus creates blissful feelings with much less intensity.
Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAO Inhibitors) in Cocoa/Cacao
These rare MAO inhibitors actually produce favorable results when consumed, by allowing more serotonin and other neurotransmitters such as anandamide, dopamine and others to circulate in the brain. According to Dr. Gabriel Cousens, MAO inhibitors facilitate anti-aging and rejuvenation.
MAO inhibitors make one feel younger when they allow more neurotransmitters to remain in the bloodstream. A primary phenomenon that differentiates children from adults is the level of neurotransmitters in the blood and bodies of children. In general, as one lives longer and longer the level of neurotransmitters decreases. This leads to less creativity, less joy, more physical rigidity – and more rapid aging!
Cocoa, with its supply of MAO inhibitors, helps keep plenty of neurotransmitters in circulation, and thus helps prevent this unhappy phenomenon from occurring. “Think young – you’ll have more fun!”
Now that you have learned how cocoa contains PEA, Anandamide, and MAO Inhibitors, and learned about the happy effects these chemicals can produce, can you see how real chocolate might deserve to be called “the happiest food”?
Chocolate as an Aphrodisiac
The peoples of Central American in the pre-Columbian era often spoke in metaphors composed of words or phrases which had a hidden meaning when uttered in sequence. This is common in many languages, including English. One of these ancient metaphors was yollotl, eztli, meaning “heart, blood,” – a phrase which referred to cocoa. Chocolate is the heart’s “blood” due to its magnesium, antioxidants, love chemicals and esoteric properties. Chocolate truly is “food for the heart”.
Chocolate is a symbol of sensuality, pleasure, and sexuality. Some writers have claimed that 50 per cent of women actually prefer chocolate to sex! That percentage might even rise if the women were offerred real chocolate in the form of organic cocoa!
Chocolate is a favorite gift from a lover to the beloved one. Chocolates are always given as love offerings. A box of chocolates is one of the most popular gifts for Valentine’s Day.
Cocoa, because it is natural and unadulterated, has an even stronger love energy than manufactured chocolate candy. In ancient Aztec wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom would exchange five cacao beans with each other.