In a way it is strange that something so good for you can elicit so much guilt when it is eaten. Yet we crave it. This conflict is expressed by the name of a store in Sedona, Arizona called ‘Death by Chocolate’. Chocolate is a mixture of ground Cacao, the chocolate bean, and usually oil as well as flavorings like sugar, vanilla, and nuts. There is the rub. Research has supported the concept that Cacao itself has many health benefits, but the additives may or may not, depending on what they are. If chocolate is made from hydrogenated oils, or trans-fats mixed with sugar, of course it is unhealthy. If made with high quality ingredients, it is one of the healthiest foods we can eat. Most of the remarkable health benefits are from the Cacao bean itself and the higher the concentration of bean the more the health benefits. Thus, dark chocolate is usually better having twice the ORAC level of antioxidants over milk chocolate. Aside from adding ingredients, cooking the Cacao bean also seems to degrade its effects, causing a loss or modification of its components and producing a tendency towards allergies. Cacao is best eaten raw. What are these health benefits?
Cacao has a reputation for creating emotional well being and for being a sexual stimulant. Both are true. One of the most well established effects of Cacao is its effect on the circulatory system. Cacao is rich in compounds called Flavanols of which the two main ones are Catechin and Epicatechin. Cooking and processing apparently degrades the concentration of Catechin, but not Epicatechin. Both have cardiovascular benefits, so some cardiovascular benefits are retained even after cooking. In particular, the Flavanols stimulate the lining of the arteries to produce Nitric Oxide. The importance of this can hardly be overstated. Nitric Oxide is the primary means by which arteries are dilated to increase circulation and is the chemical that is manipulated by Viagra to produce its dramatic sexual effects. Unlike Viagra, Cacao will not damage the eyes or lead to blindness. Nitric Oxide also cleans the arteries and plays a role in reducing arterial plaque. Cacao not only stimulates Nitric Oxide, but also reduces the chemical that blocks its production, Arginase. Nitric Oxide is made from the amino acid Arginine and Arginase beaks it down. Thus Cacao keeps the production channels open. It has also been shown to reduce platelet aggregation, thus further increasing circulation by keeping the blood from clumping.
Cacao not only stimulates Nitric Oxide, but is also protective of the cardiovascular system. It blocks LDL oxidation, the bad cholesterol, and thus has a second mechanism to prevent plaque. It also reduces inflammation, a significant factor in plaque formation. The effect of Nitric Oxide to dilate blood vessels reduces blood pressure. It also blocks Angiotensin, a chemical produced by the kidneys to raise blood pressure. Cacao has also been shown to have therapeutic doses of magnesium, a mineral used in the citric acid cycle and is involved in preventing unwanted calcifications in the body, including the arteries. It has been shown to normalize magnesium levels in rats in 3 weeks in rats kept on a low magnesium diet. So the net effect is that Cacao has a strong tendency to reduce blood pressure by preventing plaque, cleaning plaque, normalizing magnesium levels, reducing inflammation and reducing Angiotensin. In addition, one study demonstrated that following stroke, rats treated with epicatechin (the flavinol for Cacao) had a 32% smaller infarct size after 3 weeks compared to controls. Cacao protects on both ends, before and after stroke.
In addition to increasing circulation, the fact that Cacao is known to reduce inflammation in the body may be its signal effect for promoting health and reducing disease. It is very high in antioxidants (reaching 10% concentration) and is much higher than levels found in green tea and red wines. Antioxidants cool inflammation. Chronic inflammation is known to be an underlying cause in cardiovascular disease, infection, and other degenerated diseases such as cancer. One researcher commented that, based on this, it is reasonable to deduce that Cacao can help prevent cancer. One study does show it reduces colon cancer.
It does not just prevent disease, it promotes vitality and health. Studies show chocolate milk increases athletic endurance over two other commercially available sports drinks. It also shortens recovery time after exercise. For those athletes who are at risk for cardiovascular problems, Cacao reduces blood pressure during exercise to keep them safe. It also protects the liver in addition to the heart. One rat study showed it blocked liver fibrosis due to alcohol toxicity.
Another particularly interesting effect of Cacao is its ability to protect the skin and help prevent aging. It specifically increases circulation to the skin. We are all aware of the damage the sun does to our skin. It turns out that high flavinol chocolate confers significant photo protection, particularly against UV light, and helps prevent sunburn. This effect is only found in Cacao with high flavinol content and is not found in conventional chocolates. It also has cosmetic effect by reducing roughness and scaling of the skin. Cocoa also improves circulation in the brain and is amplified in older people. It has been found that the cardiovascular benefits are also amplified in the elderly, right when we need it most.
In a previous Newsletter we discussed coffee and its negative effect on the cardiovascular system. Many of the effects of coffee leading to cardiovascular stress are countered by the effects of chocolate. Thus this may be a good mixture, coffee and chocolate – a Latte Coffee reduces insulin resistance, Cacao raises it. Coffee raises blood pressure, chocolate reduces it. Coffee stresses arteries, chocolate soothes them. And their beneficial effects reinforce each other – antioxidants and the prevention of disease.
A note on cooking with chocolate; one study found that chocolate frosting, hot cocoa drink and chocolate cookies retained 86 to 100% of the antioxidants, flavanols and procyanids. The greatest losses were in chocolate cakes which retained only 5% of the Flavanols and 57% of the antioxidant activity. Therefore, don’t expect much benefit from chocolate cake.
One last comment about Cocoa – it has been found that taking Cocoa with Vitamin C helps preserve its flavinol content in the body. So we would recommend this as a synergetic combination.
Robert Janda, MA, DC
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