The health benefits of chocolate

Tasty side of health

Chocolate lovers can rejoice at the amazing health benefits derived from cocoa powder.

The silky sensation of chocolate’s smoothness and texture as it touches your tongue and melts in your mouth is part of the alluring appeal of this popular confection.

The average Canadian consumes 7.7 kilograms or just under 17 pounds of chocolate per year.

Cocoa (Theobroma cocoa) are evergreen trees native to Central and South America and middle parts of West Africa. They grow from six to 12 metres in height and have numerous large pods that are 15 to 20 centimetres in length. The pods contain 20 to 60 cocoa beans.

The trees grow best in hot humid tropical climates with increased moisture and shade within 20 degrees north and south of the equator. The countries that produce most of the world’s chocolate include Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon and Brazil. Worldwide production of cocoa is estimated to be 4.5 million tons per year.

Chocolate is made from cocoa powder derived from the cocoa tree. The pods are cut from the trees and the beans are then extracted from the ripened pods. The beans and slimy pulp are allowed to dry and partially ferment for about a week. Then the beans cracked into smaller fragments called nibs and are ground into a thick paste known as cocoa liquor. The paste is heated and separated into cocoa butter and cocoa solids. Cocoa butter is a concentrated pale, yellow edible fat.

Cocoa solids are a mixture of bitter, dark that remains after the fat is mostly removed. The cocoa solids are then dried and pulverized into a fine powder that we know as cocoa powder. The cocoa powder is then mixed with various amounts of sugar, milk and other fats to make the confection we know as chocolate.

Cocoa powder contains 58% carbohydrates of which 33% is fibre, 20% protein, 14% fat and 3% water. One ounce, or 30 grams, contains 36 milligrams of calcium, 166 milligrams of magnesium, 4 milligrams of iron, 435 milligrams of potassium, 1.9 milligrams of zinc and 1 milligram of copper. It also contains trace amounts of B vitamins and negligible amounts of vitamin B12, vitamin A and vitamin C. Cocoa powder only contains 0.5 grams of sugar per ounce.

Caffeine and a related chemical called theobromine make up 2 to 3 percent of the dried weight of the powder. Cocoa powder contains 65 milligrams of caffeine and 676 milligrams of theobromine per ounce. Theobromine is a central nervous system like caffeine but slightly slower and less potent. It is used medicinally to treat asthma. Theobromine along with caffeine can cause acid reflux and is toxic in large doses to cats and dogs.

Flavonoids are believed to be the main ingredient in cocoa powder that accounts for the health benefits of the plant. The main flavonoids in cocoa powder are the polyphenolic compounds, catechin, epicatechin and procyanidins. Fresh cocoa beans contain three to six percent polyphenols. One ounce or 30 grams of cocoa powder contains up to 3.3% of total polyphenols or 1050 milligrams.

Cocoa flavonoids are antioxidants that prevent oxidative damage in the human body. Preliminary studies show that consumption of these compounds can decrease oxidative damage to the delicate inner lining of arterial blood vessels called the endothelium. This can prevent progression of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Also, the stickiness of platelets is reduced after cocoa consumption.

Polyphenols are good for the cardiovascular system. Epicatechin increases nitric oxide which causes blood vessel vasodilation. Along with the high magnesium and potassium content of cocoa powder, this can relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure.

Furthermore, the antioxidant effects of these flavonoids can also be beneficial for neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Some studies show that chocolate consumption can improve memory.

The antioxidants in cocoa powder can also benefit the skin by preventing oxidative damage to skin cells and progression to certain types of skin cancer.

Chocolate consumption can also help to reduce inflammation by decreasing enzyme activity that promotes systemic inflammatory pathways.

Cocoa polyphenols can improve insulin sensitivity and decrease insulin resistance in Type-2 diabetes.

Chocolate can also improve moods and reduce depression. Caffeine, theobromine and the amino acids phenylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan in cocoa powder can increase dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain.

Most experts agree the optimal “dosage” of chocolate is between 30 to 60 grams per day. The higher the cocoa powder content and the darker the chocolate the better. Seventy percent or higher cocoa content is recommended for optimal health benefits.

The trouble with consuming too much chocolate is excess empty calories from too much refined sugar and fat. Chocolate can also cause acid reflux and heartburn and excessive doses can overstimulate the nervous system and cause insomnia in some sensitive individuals.

The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute medical advice. All information and content are for general information purposes only.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Doug Lobay is a practicing naturopathic physician in Kelowna, British Columbia.

He graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the University of British Columbia in 1987 and then attended Bastyr College of Natural Health Sciences in Seattle, Washington, where graduated with a doctorate in naturopathic medicine degree in 1991. While attending Bastyr College, he began to research the scientific basis of naturopathic medicine. 

He was surprised to find many of the current major medical journals abounded with scientific information on the use of diet, vitamins, nutritional supplements and herbal medicines.

Doug is a member of the College of Naturopathic Physicians of British Columbia and has practiced as naturopathic family physician for more than 30 years.  He maintains a busy practice in Kelowna where he sees a wide age range of patients with various ailments.

He focuses on dietary modification, allergy testing, nutritional assessments, supplement recommendation for optimal health, various physical therapy modalities, various intravenous therapies including chelation therapy.

An avid writer, he has written seven books on various aspects of naturopathic medicine that are available on Amazon and was also a long-time medical contributor to the Townsend Letter journal for doctors and patients, where many of his articles are available to view on-line. He has also given numerous lectures, talks and has taught various courses on natural medicine.

Doug enjoys research, writing and teaching others about the virtues of natural health and good nutrition. When not working, he enjoys cycling, hiking, hockey, skiing, swimming, tennis and playing guitar.

If you have any further questions or comments, you can contact Dr. Lobay at 250-860-7622 or [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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