Weeks before Easter is upon us the shops are laden with enormous, heavily packaged, chocolate eggs. Most of these are high in sugar and added fat and have little to recommend them nutritionally. However, this is not true for the cocoa or cacao bean, from which chocolate is derived. Here we’ll take a peak at some of the health benefits of cocoa beans. But first let’s find out a bit about its history.
A Brief History of Chocolate
Cacao has long been recognised as having exceptional properties. Archaeological evidence has revealed that the Mayans and Aztec people of meso-America had a history of cacao use spanning over 34 centuries (1). Theobroma Cacao is the latin name for the tree that chocolate is made from; it translates as Food of the Gods..
When cacao arrived in Spain in the mid 16th century it was not an immediate hit. However, the addition of sugar led to its growth in popularity and soon chocolate became a luxury food that was available from chocolate houses in cities around Europe. When originally exported, westerners called it cocoa. Nowadays, cacao tends to refer to raw chocolate.
Here are some of the benefits of cocoa beans:
Chocolate for protection – chocolate is a rich source of flavanoids (2). These scavenge reactive oxygen species that are at the root of many diseases (3). These flavanoids have been reported to exert antioxidant, anti-cancer, cardio-protective, antimicrobial, anti-viral, and neuro-protective effects (4,5).
Chocolate and inflammation - inflammation is at the route of many diseases from arthritis to dementia. Eating foods that reduce inflammation is a good way to improve health. Step forward cacao! The phenolic compounds in cacao have anti-inflammatory properties (6,7).
Chocolate, blood sugar and obesity - whilst standard chocolate bars are a disaster for blood sugar it seems that the antioxidants in cocoa beans may improve blood sugar control and insulin resistance and, in turn, reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity (8,9).
Chocolate for the heart - the consumption of chocolate is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Studies show a 50% reduction in mortality in those who eat dark chocolate (10,11,12).
Chocolate for stress reduction - stress is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. Research on medical students found that eating 40g of chocolate daily for 2 weeks reduced perceived stress, particularly in women (14). Another study found that men who consumed dark chocolate had significantly lower cortisol and adrenaline compared to control subjects after a psychological stress test (15).
Chocolate for exercise recovery – a study found that drinking chocolate milk after short term intensive exercise enhanced recovery compared to drinking water, without affecting weight loss. Other benefits include improved performance, reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol and raised testosterone relative to cortisol in men (16).
Chocolate for digestive health - there is now evidence that cacao has a prebiotic effect meaning it may encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine. These beneficial bacteria play a vital role in digestion, immunity and overall health (17)
The joy of chocolate - anthropological evidence shows that for centuries humans around the world have consumed plants for their effect on well being as well as for their calories and nutrients. Research has found that eating chocolate elevates mood, increases activity and stimulates feelings of joy (18).
Chocolate for smoother skin - research on women with sun-aged skin found that after 24 weeks the participants who drank a daily cocoa beverage had smoother skin, fewer wrinkles and improved skin elasticity (19).
How to Consume Chocolate
In short, chocolate is good for your heart, your hormones and your emotional health! If you want to experience the joy of chocolate without the blood sugar roller coaster try Tom Oliver’s vegan high protein snack bars that come in a range of chocolatey flavours. Perfect as an Easter treat or an every day snack. Tom Oliver’s protein powders also come in chocolate flavours; perfect for that chocolatey smoothie or post work-out pick me up.