The Mayans loved cocoa so much that they used the beans as currency. They also believed it was good for your health, something many people still say today about cocoa’s most famous byproduct, chocolate.
In fact, cocoa (which, also called cocoa, is the not-so-secret ingredient in chocolate) contains hundreds of bioactive plant compounds, including flavanols, which have been associated with numerous potential health benefits.
“Research on the bioactive components of the cocoa bean shows quite consistently that if you consume higher amounts of flavanols, you will see that the mechanisms related to heart disease are, in general, favorably impacted,” says Howard Sesso, an epidemiologist at the Harvard TH. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. This includes improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
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But while cocoa has intriguing potential to improve heart health and brain function, no science supports consuming large amounts of chocolate as a health food; Sorry, chocoholics. This is why.
Is chocolate really good for you?
Spurred by the popularity of chocolate, numerous studies have explored how the natural chemical compounds found in cocoa could be good for human health. While some have suggested that less than an ounce of dark chocolate could improve heart healthMuch of the research does not involve eating actual chocolate but rather its components.
In 2022, Sesso and his colleagues found compelling evidence for the benefits of flavanols. In a clinical trial of 21,000 adults, they found that half of the group who took 500 mg of cocoa flavanol supplements daily had a significantly lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease than those who had taken a placebo. (He COSMOS studioAlthough independent, it was financed in part by Edge of Marsa research arm of the candy manufacturer).
Flavanols can also increase insulin sensitivity, according to some studieswhich could be helpful in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. But the the results are inconclusiveand those at risk of diabetes should choose a cocoa-inspired supplement instead of eating chocolate and the sugar it contains.
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Other investigations suggests that The flavanols found in cocoa (also found in fruits, vegetables and tea) could slow cognitive decline during aging or even increase brain performance by improving blood flow to the brain. cerebral cortex. But there is still more research to be done to understand these effects.
What these findings mean for chocolate It is limited, however. Participants would have had to eat several fat- and sugar-filled chocolate bars a day to get 500 mg of flavanols, and all chocolates are definitely not created equal.
What type of chocolate is healthier?
Understanding why certain types of chocolate are healthier than the rest starts with how these variations are made. During production, cocoa beans are separated into fleshy solids, known as seeds, and a fatty portion called cocoa butter. It is the solids that contain beneficial compounds such as flavanols, but to produce chocolate they are mixed with cocoa butter, sugar and sometimes milk.
“Any health benefits attributed to chocolate are due to its cocoa content,” says Tim Spector, a genetic epidemiologist at King’s College London and co-founder of personalized nutrition company ZOE.
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In general, milk chocolate has much fewer solids, while dark chocolate contains more, as evidenced by its bitter taste. In the case of white chocolate, the cocoa solids are discarded entirely (along with flavanols and other beneficial compounds), leaving only the cocoa butter, milk, sugar, and often a hint of vanilla flavor. White chocolate is a source of sugar, fat and calories, but not much that can be considered beneficial for human health.
So a general rule of thumb is that bitter and dark chocolate has a more beneficial cocoa content and that is usually reflected on the labels. But Sesso says that’s not the whole story.
“Just because something is marked as 80 percent cocoa doesn’t clarify whether it’s actually good for you or not,” he says. “Like many other foods, not just cocoa, the way it is processed from start to finish can have a profound impact on the nutrients or bioactives left in it,” she adds.
Cocoa beans can lose their beneficial compounds when they are fermented and dried, for example, and are further reduced during roasting and other chocolate production processes. (Cocoa more accurately refers to raw beans, while cocoa has been processed or pulverized in ways that can affect its active content; however, the two terms are often used interchangeably on packaging, whether accurate or not. ).
Spector adds that many of the most popular brand name products are ultra-processed foods loaded with sugar, emulsifiers and artificial flavors, with little beneficial cocoa. “In those cases, the negative health effects outweigh any benefits,” he says. “When you choose minimally processed chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa, you get the benefits associated with cocoa with few disadvantages.”
Cocoa powder and nibs
The Mayans I enjoyed a variety of drinks loaded with cocoa powder.which according to Sessos is “probably a better source for obtaining some of the beneficial effects of the cocoa bean than chocolate.”
However, do not confuse these powders with hot chocolate mix. The bitter, unsweetened cocoa powder popularly used in baking contains very high amounts of cocoa, up to 100 percent. Hot chocolate mixes contain much less cocoa and large amounts of milk powder and sugar.
Meanwhile, cocoa beans are also a good source of the beneficial compounds found in cocoa because they are literally small pieces of cocoa bean and nothing more. Nibs, which can be mixed with granola or smoothies, have another health benefit: They have high amounts of fiber that help digestive health.
Ultimately, Sesso says, our collective desire to promote the health benefits of chocolate ““They don’t realize that what matters is not the chocolate, but what’s in it.”
“If you like chocolate in moderation, of course you should consume it,” he adds. “But don’t necessarily eat it because you’re thinking about its health benefits.”