Cocoa is a natural food packed with nutrients and low in sugar – yes really! Especially raw cacao which has not been processed in heated conditions. However, cacao is used as an ingredient in chocolate and can be found in many foods loaded with sugar, unhealthy fats and additives. In these products, sugar and added fats tend to be the main ingredients.
In other words, a lot of the chocolate treats available are basically sugar with added fats and just a little cocoa. But let’s get back to cacao (a term typically used for nibs, powder or paste obtained without heating the beans of the cocoa pod) or cocoa. Up to 90% of flavonoids may be lost in cocoa processing (including fermentation of the beans, an avoidable step to reduce bitterness) so whenever possible buy organic and raw cacao which are more nutritious options.
Nutritionally speaking, cacao contains 14% fat versus 31% in milk chocolate. Cocoa fat is 2/3 saturated which can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and 1/3 monounsaturated in the form of oleic acid which has a positive effect on lipid levels. Cocoa also contains 20% protein with the rest being carbohydrates including a high fibre component of approximately 34%. But a chocolate bar typically contains a meagre 3% fibre!
So far, cacao appears to be quite a healthy food, right? Well, that’s not all, cacao also contains minerals including magnesium that helps muscle relaxation, cooper, an important element in free-radical management, and to a lesser extent iron, to help transport oxygen throughout the body, and phosphorous to support growth.
Before we start taking about antioxidants and other health-promoting compounds, please note that the majority of research studies on polyphenols from cocoa have been carried out in-vitro and using much higher doses of these compounds than normally found in foods. So, although cocoa powder, butter and nibs contain antioxidants they can only support health as part of a varied diet rich in antioxidants from a wide variety of foods. Cocoa contains flavonoids like those found in green tea and red wine and procyanidin also found in apples to help us fight the harmful effects of free-radicals, which in large quantities can lead to oxidative stress and chronic disease. Note that dark chocolate is higher in flavonoids than milk chocolate and that white chocolate has next to no antioxidants. Flavonoids in cocoa can also help increase insulin sensitivity, which is on the rise and has been linked to metabolic syndrome, diabetes type 2 and PCOS among other conditions. Cocoa extract has been found to reduce inflammation due to its proanthocyonidins, powerful polyphenol antioxidants but note that sugar is pro-inflammatory so cocoa is OK, milk chocolate bars, hot chocolate and chocolate ice-cream are, sadly, not. Cocoa can also help brain function and mood. Improvement in cognition induced by cocoa flavanols has been reflected in higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which also plays a role in depressive disorder. Flavanols in cocoa can help brain function by playing a neuro-protective and neuro-modulatory role that supports neuronal function and brain connectivity, and via increasing blood-flow in the brain and sensory systems. It is important to note that chocolate appears to improve mood, especially when eaten mindfully.
Additionally, cocoa contains theobromine, a diuretic that can help dilate blood vessels and help reduce high blood pressure. Research also concludes that cocoa flavonoids can improve vascular function in individuals with increased risk of CVD. Note that cacao also contains caffeine so must be consumed in moderation in pregnancy, infancy and by those on low-caffeine diets.
Cocoa or cacao can add antioxidants to our diets and help support health as part of a balanced diet rich in fruit, vegetables, good fats and healthy protein. Be savvy when shopping and read the labels because some chocolate products tend to be much less healthy as they are loaded (literarily) with sugars, unhealthy fats and additives. Dark chocolate does contain sugar but in lower amounts than milk chocolate. Try to buy chocolate with the highest possible cocoa content (at least 80%!) and avoid anything filled with caramel, raisins or fruit pastes as they only add more sugar. Nuts and seeds, however, are a great addition to dark chocolate because they add healthy fats, protein and fibre so they slow down glucose absorption. Cocoa nibs are great as they have a lovely rich flavor and contain antioxidants without the sugar and can be added to yogurt, snacks and even to granola (See recipe) Raw cacao is incredible versatile and can be used in savoury dishes – we like to add a tablespoon of cacao to our chilli con carne after it is off the heat to deepen the flavour. On sweet dishes, we use raw cacao for no-cook desserts such as this avocado and cocoa mouse – so tasty and healthy at the same time!