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Ideal ingredient calling card: cocoa (Theobroma cacao)

Everything you need to know about cocoa (Theobroma cacao), from its history to market drivers and manufacturing constraints and nutrition.

Cocoa (Theobroma cacao)Food of the Gods

What it is

  • Dried fermented seeds of Theobroma cacao beans
  • Cocoa: ground roasted seeds
  • Cocoa liquor (cacao liquor or cacao mass): pure milled cacao, includes cocoa butter and cocoa solids
  • Cocoa butter: pale-yellow, vegetable fat extracted from the cacao bean

Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao)Where it's found

  • First domesticated by the Olmecs (Pre-Columbian, 600 BC) in South Central Mexico
  • 90 percent grown in Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, Ecuador and Malaysia

Food or medicine?

  • As currency by Olmecs; as medicinal drink xocolatl by Mayans and Aztecs; as medicine by Francisco Hernández, royal physician to King Philip II of Spain; as indulgent drink in Spanish courts; and confectionery in England
  • Highest bio-polyphenol concentration of all foods
  • A delicious medicine: antioxidative, antimicrobial, possibly anticarcinogenic and/or cardioprotective benefits
  • Subject of patents for pharma/cosmetic treatment of skin adipocytes

Manufacturing constraints

  • Chemical processes: fermentation, roasting and alkalization – all reduce flavonoid content
  • Raw cacao not as tasty as processed cocoa
  • Cost of high bioactive cocoa major deterrent for food manufacturers
  • Ambiguity of health benefits not robust for marketing claims

Market drivers

  • Growing consumer preference for cocoa-based functional foods
  • Consumers want a daily dose of cocoa food that's good for them
  • Advances in processing technologies to preserve bioactive content
  • Selective development of high-bioactive content cocoa
  • Formulations delivering benefits in tasty products

Physiological effects

  • Composition is well defined; functional significance less so
  • Major methylxanthines: theobromine and caffeine
  • Major polyphenols: flavanols
  • (catechins), flavonols (quercetins), anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins
  • Procyanidins (60 percent of polyphenol content) may help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Flavonoids modulate immune, metabolic and enzymatic processes
  • Flavonoids protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer
  • Extremely rich source of minerals: Ca, Cu, Fe, Mg, Mn, P, K, Na, Zn
  • Processing reduces phytic acid and oxalic acid and renders minerals more bioavailable
  • Multitude of health benefits merit additional serious studies

Surprising fact:
Despite its high saturated (stearic) fat content, cocoa does not appear to raise cholesterol levels in normal humans (Penny Kris-Etherton, 1993, 1994).

Borchers A, et al. Cocoa and chocolate: composition, bioavailability, and health implications, J Med Food 2000;3(2):73-6.

Hannum S, Erdman J, Emerging health benefits from cocoa and chocolate, J Med Food 2000;3(2):77-106.

Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., is a principal at Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food science and nutrition firm that specializes in competitive intelligence and expert witness services. Contact her at [email protected] or 312.951.5810.

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