Since well before its introduction to western consumers in the sixteenth century, cocoa and its most popular derivative chocolate have long been used as therapeutic and medicinal remedies. Whether it was Aztec shamans using cocoa as a divine potion, or later aficionados praising its heart-strengthening and restorative qualities, cocoa and chocolate have always been regarded as considerably more than simple snacks or drinks. Steve Laning considers their health benefits.
Perhaps the world's first 'functional food' or nutraceutical, the twentieth century has seen the development of some widespread myths and misunderstandings surrounding both cocoa and chocolate. Chocolate is said to trigger migraines or tension-type headaches. In fact it does not. Recent research shows headaches and chocolate consumption to be unrelated. Neither does chocolate cause tooth decay, it actually clears the mouth relatively quickly and studies show that some of the compounds in chocolate may help prevent bacterial attacks on tooth enamel. There are those who claim that chocolate is addictive, either because of its caffeine content, or because of a combination of some of the other compounds it contains. This is incorrect. The levels of caffeine or other pharmacologically active constituents of chocolate, such as theobromine, are not sufficient to satisfy a chocolate craving. People crave chocolate for a very simple reason — its taste. There is no link between acne and chocolate. It does not raise cholesterol levels as part of a balanced diet; on the contrary, dark chocolate is almost cholesterol free and although some consider it a commonly allergenic food, one recent study found that only one in 500 of those who considered themselves allergic to chocolate actually were. It appears that far from being the cause of any addiction, decay or dietary deficiency, the only thing chocolate is guilty of is being a delicious all round sensory experience.
Anti-oxidative Properties Of Chocolate
The good news does not stop there. Research into the nutritional and chemical properties of chocolate has intensified over the last two or three years in the wake of several studies that suggest that as well as its sensory impact, chocolate can actually have a positive impact on nutrition and health. A report from Harvard University found that people who eat sweets, including chocolate, appear to live almost a year longer, on average, than those who do not.
Ongoing studies into heart disease, which linked the consumption of certain teas, red wine and fruit and vegetables with a reduced risk of cardiovascular problems, now associate this reduction with the polyphenol content of those products. Polyphenols are an anti-oxidative group of phytochemicals, that is, an antioxidant variety of the naturally occurring chemicals found in all plants, including cocoa. The presence of polyphenols in chocolate is well documented, but studies had previously focused on the role they played in flavour and colour development. With all the positive benefits being associated with polyphenols in other foods, the chocolate industry re-examined these compounds in order to investigate the possible health benefits that they may present for cocoa and chocolate consumers. It has since been confirmed that cocoa beans not only contain very impressive quantities of natural polyphenolic antioxidants but, perhaps more importantly, the preliminary findings indicate that such levels may carry with them real, substantive health benefits for chocolate lovers.
The Health Benefits
Antioxidants like polyphenols combat free-radicals which are normally produced in our bodies. In doing so they provide benefits to virtually all the major systems of the body, in particular the cardiovascular system, the immune system, neurons in the brain, protection against cancers and the slowing of some steps in the aging process. While the antioxidant properties of fruits and vegetables are well known, dark chocolate, for example, has been found to contain twice the antioxidant levels of prunes, which have one of the highest levels among fruits.
Studies from the University of California in the USA and the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina indicate that the high levels of polyphenols in cocoa and chocolate may have a favourable impact on the risk factors associated with heart disease. They confirmed that the amount of antioxidants in the blood stream increased within two hours of chocolate consumption by healthy men and women and that the heart may benefit due to a reduction in the reactivity of blood platelets. The reactivity of blood platelets promotes the phenomenon of blood clotting and many doctors recommend that patients at risk of heart disease take aspirin to mildly inhibit this clotting. These latest findings suggest that the antioxidant polyphenols in cocoa and chocolate can have a similar beneficial effect and inhibit the capacity of blood clotting, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The key elements of oxidation in the blood are the so-called free radicals, which scientists have linked to ageing, certain degenerative diseases of the eye and nervous system, and cardiovascular disease. It is also assumed that they play an important role in the development of cancer since well-known carcinogens such as smoking and UV radiation also form free radicals.
One of the most effective antioxidant varieties of polyphenols are flavonoids. Studies have indicated that the flavonoids in cocoa have a significant inhibiting effect on carcinogenesis, that is, the cancer forming process, through their antioxidant and free radical combating properties. In Japan, there are even two patents for cocoa extracts that claim to prevent the development of cancer and that can be used as a nutritional supplement or as an ingredient in a functional food. Also in Japan, a company recently introduced a chocolate bar with an elevated flavonoid content, the packaging of which states that it retards the development of cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
It has been known for some time that cocoa and polyphenol extracts of cocoa can prevent dental caries. It is believed that the polyphenol inactivates the enzyme responsible for catalysing the production of poly-saccharoses from sugar — the binding agent that attaches the dental plaque to the teeth.
Infectious And Auto-immune Diseases
The immune system protects against infection caused by invasion of pathogenic cells, such as bacteria, moulds, viruses and parasites and is also active in removing muted cells that can initiate cancer. The immune system demands a well-balanced interaction between various types of cells produced by the lymph glands. These cells possess a permeable cell membrane, which contains a high content of poly-unsaturated fatty acids. Consequently, it is very sensitive to lipid peroxidation. When the immune system is out of balance it can react excessively, causing over production of oxygen radicals and peroxides that can cause acute inflammations leading to auto-immune diseases such as rheumatic arthritis and stomach ulcers. It has been shown that antioxidants may play an important regulating role in the functioning of the immune system and preventing infection and auto-immune diseases.
Free radicals are generally believed to play an important role in the ageing of cells. Over time, the anti-oxidative system in the cell becomes less efficient, allowing the radicals more opportunity to do their destructive work. Extensive research has found that it may be possible to extend the life expectancy of a healthy human being by 5-10 years by adhering to an active life-style and a well balanced diet, high in antioxidants such as the polyphenols found in chocolate.
Dr. Joe McCord at the Webb-Waring Institute for Cancer, Ageing and Antioxidant Research in Colorado states that: "all infectious diseases...involve free radicals and it's a rare disease that doesn't involve them." Thanks largely to their high antioxidant activity and consequent inhibiting effect on free radicals, cocoa and chocolate therefore have a vital role to play in keeping our bodies adequately protected against free radical damage.
The nutritional benefit of chocolate — for so long regarded by health conscious consumers as public enemy number one — needs to be re-evaluated in the light of the most recent research.
Contrary to well entrenched beliefs, far from having negative health implications, chocolate can actually be considered a beneficial element of a well-balanced and nutritious diet, that is, one containing a wide variety of foods and one where total caloric consumption is in balance with caloric expenditure. Whether it is cardiovascular disease, the effects of ageing, dental caries, auto-immune diseases or even cancer, chocolate can have a positive impact on maintaining adequate defence systems for the human body. And it doesn't taste too bad either.
—Steve Laning, Product Service & Development Manager
ADM Cocoa B.V., Postbus 2, 1540 AA Koog aan de Zaan, Netherlands
Tel: +31 75 64 64 451
Fax: +31 75 64 64 221