So GoodAug/Sep 2011 Issue

Cocoa

Health benefits that taste good

© 2011 Thinkstock/Photodisc/Jack Hollingsworth

© 2011 Thinkstock/Photodisc/Jack Hollingsworth

Cocoa is the main component of chocolate, the all-time popular flavoring and candy enjoyed around the world. As wonderful as a chocolate bar tastes, it also contains, among other things, cocoa butter and sugar—excess fat and empty calories that can contribute to risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes. (Cocoa butter does offer theobromine, which has antioxidant value.) A typical candy bar has 8 to 10 grams of fat per bar so one must exercise restraint.

Cocoa itself is a powerfully beneficial food when consumed properly. Studies have linked cocoa and its polyphenolic flavonoids with overall heart wellness, including lower blood pressure, stronger blood vessels and improved cholesterol levels.

The flavonoids found in cocoa are vastly different in structure from the flavonoids found in other foods, such as veggies, fruit and tea, giving cocoa unique health properties.

A study conducted in Argentina in cooperation with the University of California/Davis showed that cocoa-derived polyphenols can help lower blood pressure. Cocoa does this by increasing nitric oxide (NO) production in the blood. NO plays a crucial role in blood vessel health and maintaining blood pressure.

Polyphenols are antioxidants that minimize daily wear and tear in the body, as well as regulate inflammatory enzyme activity. A study done in the United Kingdom this year showed that chocolate high in cocoa-based polyphenols was effective in reducing symptoms of chronic fatigue.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s Family Heart Study, which was done at Harvard this year, concluded that cocoa consumption was inversely associated with coronary heart disease. The more consumed, the lower the rate of heart disease.

Of course, consuming too much of anything can lead to undesirable results. Women should know that cocoa contains methylxanthines, which can block enzyme systems in the liver responsible for getting rid of hormones and cancer-causing substances in the body. This is why I caution women who have difficult menstrual cycles or PMS about eating chocolate during this time because it may make things worse.

The quantity of cocoa in the chocolate you eat is important if you want to get the health benefits. Choose dark chocolate with high levels of cocoa (at least 70 percent) and low amounts of fat and sugar. (Sugar can block the absorption of polyphenolic flavonoids.)

And remember, there are other ways you can enjoy cocoa besides chocolate bars. Dutch-processed cocoa is high quality; this method of processing preserves the nutrient benefits of the cocoa. You can also add cocoa as flavoring to foods. Mexican cuisine uses cocoa in delicate sauces. There is cocoa-flavored balsamic vinegar, chili chocolate chipolte sauce and chili chocolate mole sauce. Enjoy hot cocoa, knowing it’s good for your heart—but go easy on the fat and sugar.

Frank Ervolino, ND, is a licensed naturopathic doctor in Palm City, Florida, who specializes in dietary therapy. Consult with your doctor before taking supplements.

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