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Chocolate – friend of foe?

Origins of cocoa date back some 3000 years ago, when ancient civilizations used this miracle bean for both nutritional and medicinal purposes. In the 16th century Hernan Cortes wrote of Montezuma, the Aztec Emperor labelling cocoa a ‘divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.’

Today its high levels of health promoting bioactive compounds have been researched in numerous fields, with positive effects found in heart disease (1), diabetes and weight loss (2). More recent evidence shows it might also lower allergies, improve mood (3) and maintain healthy skin during aging (4). This is definitely what most of us wanted to hear….

This is the good news!!

The not so good news is that much of what is sold as chocolate is often heavily processed and only has limited amounts of actual cocoa. Generally speaking the darker it is the more actual cocoa it contains. When reading labels the first ingredient on the list is what there is most of in the product, all the way down to the last one listed. So if sugar and a bunch of other things appear before the word cocoa, then the less actual cocoa will be in it. Unfortunately the more ‘other stuff’ in it the worse it likely is for you!

It is well worth considering switching to more pure and natural varieties of this wonder of nature as cocoa is also high in minerals such as magnesium, copper and iron. Magnesium is an important nutrient for relaxation and great for the heart and blood (5), with low levels have been linked to metabolic syndrome conditions such as high blood pressure, blood fats and blood sugar (6). Copper and iron are also needed for energy production and heart health (7).

Many chronic diseases are also inflammatory and you guessed it cocoa phytochemicals have potent anti-inflammatory properties (8) as well, which is one of the reasons it is thought to be so good for your heart. These plant based chemicals found naturally in the cocoa bean are also antioxidants (9), so may protect us from excess free radicals. It even has a higher antioxidant capacity than tea and red wine (10). Many other diverse conditions have also been treated with cocoa including anemia, tuberculosis, fever, gout, kidney stones and even libido (11). I’m sure the list could go on if I kept digging….

What’s the difference between cocoa and cacao I hear you ask? Cacao these days seems to be the trend being pushed as the much healthier alternative. Is this for real or just clever marketing once more? They both start from the cocoa bean which are ground and have the cocoa butter removed. In the case of raw cacao, this is a cold pressed process which is said to keep many more of the phytochemicals intact. Cocoa powder on the other hand uses a quicker process of heat removing the butter portion. That said, many other factors during the farming and harvesting process can affect the quality and nutritional levels of the original beans before the actual processing even occurs (12).

So are we drawing at straws again hoping that cacao is really that much more healthy than cocoa? Much of the research has actually been done on cocoa, including all of the information mentioned above. Whilst a high heat process is known to decrease some beneficial plant based chemicals, is this to the extent that there is a major difference in benefits the powder can provide?

I was unable to find any scientific papers comparing both being used as treatments, so am not able to officially say one is better than the other when they are both in their pure form. In theory if the main difference is using heat during processing, then does it stand to reason that heating or cooking with the raw cacao might reduce any of the added benefits of consuming this super healthy and super tasty bean in its raw form?


1. Hooper L, Kay C, Abdelhamid A, et al. Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavanols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Am J Clin Nutr 2012; 95:740–751.

2. Min SY, Yang H, Seo SG, et al. Cocoa polyphenols suppress adipogenesis in vitro and obesity in vivo by targeting insulin receptor. Int J Obes 2013; 37:584–592. [Epub ahead of print].

3. Latif R. Health benefits of cocoa Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2013, 16:669–674

4. Scapangnini G et al. Cocoa Bioactive Compounds: Significance and Potential for the Maintenance of Skin Health, Nutrients 2014, 6; 3202-3213

5. Steinberg, F.M.; Bearden, M.M.; Keen, C.L. Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: implications for cardiovascular health. J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 2003, 103, 215–223.

6. Gums, J.G. Magnesium in cardiovascular and other disorders. Am. J. Health Syst. Pharm. 2004, 61, 1569–1576.

7. Olivares, M.; Uauy, R. Copper as an essential nutrient. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 1996, 63, 791S–796S.

8. Selmi, C.; Mao, T.K.; Keen, C.L.; Schmitz, H.H.; Eric Gershwin, M. The anti-inflammatory properties of cocoa flavanols. J. Cardiovasc. Pharmacol. 2006, 47, S163–S171.

9. Ramiro-Puig, E.; Castell, M. Cocoa: Antioxidant and immunomodulator. Br. J. Nutr. 2009, 101, 931–940.

10. Lee, K. W., Kim, Y. J., Lee, H. J. and Lee, C. Y. (2003). Cocoa has more phenolic phytochemicals and a higher antioxidant capacity than teas and red wine. J.Agric. Food Chem. 51:7292–7295.

11. Jiyoung Kim , Jaekyoon Kim , Jaesung Shim , Chang Yong Lee , Ki Won Lee & Hyong Joo Lee (2014) Cocoa Phytochemicals: Recent Advances in Molecular Mechanisms on Health, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 54:11, 1458-1472

12. Lídia J. R. Lima , M. Helena Almeida , M. J. Rob Nout , Marcel H. Zwietering ‘ Theobroma cacao L., “The Food of the Gods”: Quality Determinants of Commercial Cocoa Beans, with Particular Reference to the Impact of Fermentation’ Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 2011, Vol. 51, Iss. 8.

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