Chocolate, made from cacao beans, has many health benefits. The Mayans, the first to consume chocolate, called it the “Food of the Gods.”
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Chocolate is made from cacao beans of the Theobroma cacao tree (1), and cacao has many health benefits. The Mayans were the first people to consume chocolate, and they called it the “Food of the Gods” (2).
The purest source of cacao is dark chocolate, with 70–100% cacao. Dark chocolate does not contain much sugar (3). Milk chocolate has lower cacao and higher sugar content. For the full benefits of cacao that we discuss below, be sure you choose dark chocolate with a high cacao content and bear in mind, the higher, the better!
Cacao contains caffeine and theobromine (4). Caffeine is a well-known stimulant found in coffee or tea. Theobromine is chemically very similar to caffeine and is also a stimulant (5). Both substances increase alertness and concentration and provide a ‘feel-good’ factor, at reasonable doses.
Many of the health benefits of cacao are due to the antioxidant content (6). Cacao contains antioxidants, particularly flavonoids, phenols, and catechins (7). Antioxidants protect from free radicals, which damage DNA and cellular health. They also reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Cacao has a positive effect on blood pressure, insulin resistance, vascular function, and platelet aggregation (8). The flavonoids in cacao are cardioprotective (9). Polyphenols in cocoa can reduce blood pressure (10). Antioxidants also have beneficial effects on decreased platelet aggregation (11).
There is some research associating cocoa consumption with reduced risk of stroke and heart disease, but the research is not consistent (12).
Cacao has cancer-protective qualities. It is thought that polyphenols can prevent cancer or slow the development of cancer (13). Polyphenols also inhibit cell division, which can be toxic to cancer cells (14). Studies show flavonoids are related to anti-tumor effects (15).
However, a very recent study on mice found that antioxidants in chocolate, tea, and berries may actually increase the risk for certain types of cancers (16). In different parts of the gut, depending on which gut bacteria are present, there can be different reactions between antioxidants and cancerous cells (17).
More research will need to be done on the topic of cacao and cancer prevention. As with anything in nutrition, moderation is vital, and more is not always better, even of good food.
Flavonoids from cocoa can modulate and support both the innate and acquired sides of the immune system (18). Theobromine in dark chocolate can reduce various types of immune cells, which is positive for inflammation and immune system response (19).
Flavonoids have anti-inflammatory properties (20). Cacao has been found to improve obesity-related inflammation in a study on mice (21). In humans, one 4-week trial of cacao consumption found a significant reduction in C-reactive protein (CRP), a key marker of inflammation. This change in CRP was associated with changes in gut bacteria (22).
Cacao is a prebiotic. It changes gut bacteria composition and can significantly affect the growth of certain bacteria (23). It increases good gut bacteria strains and decreases bad gut bacteria (24). As the gut is the foundation of health, this positive effect on gut health can have a profound impact on overall health (25).
To learn more about gut health, read our article “5 Vegetables that Affect Your Gut.”
There is evidence that cacao can help reduce obesity and metabolic syndrome and improve cholesterol numbers. ]Cacao consumption can result in a decrease in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Some studies show it increases HDL (“good”) cholesterol, while some show it has no effect on HDL.
In rats and humans, cacao has led to a decrease in visceral adipose tissue, which is the dangerous fat around the abdomen and part of metabolic syndrome (26).
Caffeine and theobromine in cacao can promote brain health and reduce neurodegeneration. They are useful for neuron networks in the brain, promote consistent cognitive performance, and can protect neurons against damage related to stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease (27).
There is some evidence that the antioxidant polyphenols in cacao protect against sunburn by reducing the skin damage of ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation (28).
Cacao is a mood booster and creates feelings of well-being. Flavonoids reduce the stress response and cortisol levels, increasing relaxation (29). (To learn about other foods that reduce cortisol, read “Stay Calm With these Cortisol-Lowering Foods”). In addition, cacao is an aphrodisiac. It enhances sexual arousal. In male rats, it enhances sexual performance (30).
Buy chocolate with a high cacao content, of 70–100% cacao. Any less and you won’t get the health benefits of cacao. Milk chocolate is full of sugar and possibly other unhealthy ingredients. Buy organic chocolate.
Pesticides are often used on conventional cacao bean crops. Farming cacao can also be an exploitative business, so try to buy fair trade brands.Most people have mild effects from caffeine and theobromine, when eaten at reasonable doses. \Common adverse side effects of cacao are headache and migraine, and these are dose-dependent (31).
Chocolate is high in histamine, so it can be a trigger for histamine-intolerant people. And finally, don’t eat the whole bar of dark chocolate, or you will definitely be up all night from the caffeine and theobromine!Enjoy dark chocolate, the “Food of the Gods,” and reap the many health benefits it provides!
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