If it’s not true that hot cocoa saves lives, it might be true that hot cocoa can rescue your mood on a cold, snowy night. But chocolate is also so much more than just a delicious indulgence. It’s a complex food with a rich history. And its myriad of components can result in delicious health benefits. This is the blog that just might justify another mug of dark cacao by the fire.
What is cocoa, exactly?
Cocoa, also known as cacao, is the dried and fully fermented fatty seed of the fruit of the cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao. Usually, the components of cocoa include cocoa liquor, cocoa powder, and chocolate.
Cocoa liquor is a paste made from ground, roasted, shelled, and fermented cocoa beans, while cocoa powder is made by removing some of the cocoa butter from the liquor.
Chocolate, on the other hand, is a solid food made by combining cocoa liquor with cocoa butter and sugar, with the proportion of cocoa liquor determining the darkness of the chocolate. Milk chocolate, the most consumed type in the United States, typically contains 10%–12% cocoa liquor, while dark chocolate must contain at least 35% cocoa liquor to be considered semisweet or bittersweet.
Cocoa is a rich source of bioactive compounds, including the following:
- fatty acids
The fatty acids in cocoa butter are a mixture of monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids. While saturated fatty acids are generally associated with increased risk of heart disease, cocoa butter contains a significant amount of stearic acid, which is believed to have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels.
Additionally, cocoa contains fiber, which is important for weight maintenance and has been associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Cocoa also provides essential minerals like magnesium, copper, potassium, and calcium, which are important for vascular function.
One of the most significant components of cocoa is its polyphenol content, particularly flavonoids like flavanols and procyanidins.
Single servings of cocoa and cocoa products contain more of these nifty phenolic antioxidants than most foods. The flavanols in cocoa are responsible for its bitter taste but are also known for their beneficial effects on vascular function. They have been shown to improve endothelial function, reduce blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, and reduce platelet activity.
A study in the Netherlands found that higher cocoa intake was associated with lower blood pressure and reduced cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.
Another study in Sweden found that regular chocolate consumption was linked to a lower risk of cardiac death in patients who had experienced a first myocardial infarction.
Additionally, cocoa consumption has been associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, lower levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), and improved psychological well-being in some studies.
So is it a little more true that hot cocoa saves lives? Cocoa is certainly a complex food with a rich array of bioactive compounds that can have both positive and negative effects on health. While cocoa butter contains fatty acids that may be beneficial for heart health, cocoa powder is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols that can protect against oxidative stress. However, it’s important to consume cocoa in moderation, as it is very often also high in calories and sugar.
Overall, incorporating moderate amounts of dark chocolate or cocoa powder into a balanced diet may provide some health benefits, but more research is needed to fully understand its effects on human health.
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