Nutrition Myths
What components of cocoa makes dark chocolate so healthy?

SUMMARY

  • Cocoa has two components: non-fat and fat cocoa solids.
  • The non-fat cocoa solids contain most of the health promoting compounds in chocolate, such as polyphenols, minerals, fiber and theobromine.
  • Cocoa butter contains a combination of fatty acids (including saturated fatty acids) that have a neutral effect on the blood lipids.
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What components of cocoa makes dark chocolate so healthy?

Components of non-fat cocoa solids

Non-fat cocoa solids are components of the cocoa nibs. They are devoid of water, and are usually obtained by separating the cocoa butter from the cocoa seeds that have been previously shelled, dried, fermented and crushed.

These components are responsible for most of the health properties of dark chocolate.

There are roughly 380 known chemicals in cocoa solids. The following is a list of the main health promoting elements of non-fat cocoa solids and their function in human health.

Polyphenols and antioxidants

The most abundant polyphenols in chocolate are: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5):

  • Proanthocyanidins (58%)
  • Catechin (37%), most of which are epicatechins
  • Anthocyanidins (4%)

In dark chocolate, polyphenols are mainly found in non-fat cocoa solids. (6)

The highest polyphenol and antioxidant concentrations are in the raw, unprocessed cocoa beans. However, they are not pleasant to eat due to their astringent taste.

Out of the processed cocoa products, the concentration of polyphenols and antioxidants depend on the proportion of non-fat cocoa solids in the product.

The following is a list of processed cocoa products listed from the highest to the lowest concentration of polyphenols and ORAC. Non-fat cocoa solids proportions are included in the brackets (6):

  1. Cocoa powder (82%)
  2. Baking chocolate (47%)
  3. Dark chocolate (23.5%)
  4. Semisweet chocolate chips (16.9%)
  5. Milk chocolate (6.2%)
  6. Chocolate syrup (6.2%)

For comparison, cocoa powder has approximately 4 times more non-fat cocoa solids, polyphenols, and antioxidant capacity than dark chocolate. (7)

Polyphenols in chocolate have powerful properties, as they (8, 9, 10, 4, 11):

  • are antioxidant
  • are anti-inflammatory
  • induce vasodilation
  • reduce platelet adhesion
  • reduce blood pressure
  • reduce insulin resistance
  • improve fat metabolism
  • are protective for skin health
  • protect from oxidative stress
  • may play an important role in strengthening the immune system and preventing cancer
  • may have neuroprotective properties

However, for the polyphenols to have an effect, between 38 and 125g of chocolate daily need to be consumed.  (12, 13)

Although chocolate is very rich in flavonoids, other foods which are consumed more than chocolate, contribute on average to more flavonoid intake: for instance, the proportion of flavonoids from tea is 26%, apples 17% and chocolate only 2%. (14)

Cocoa butter has only a small amount of the total polyphenol contents of chocolate. (15)

Fiber

Chocolate is rich in fiber and the majority of it is insoluble. (16).

A 50g piece of dark chocolate (70-85%) contains 5.5g of fiber. (17).

Fiber has an important function in cardiovascular health. It is associated with reducing inflammation, improving the LDL:HDL ratio, lowering blood glucose and insulin, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and aiding in weight loss. (read more..)

Fiber contains potassium and magnesium which help in decreasing blood pressure fiber rich foods. (18)

Caffeine

A 50g piece of dark chocolate has approximately 20-40mg of caffeine. (19, 20)

Regular, long term caffeine intake for slow caffeine metabolizers of over 200mg (2-3 coffees per day) may increase the risk of non-fatal heart attacks (read more..).

On the other hand, for fast caffeine metabolizers (moderate to high coffee drinkers) about 400mg of caffeine is associated with an optimal cardiovascular health.

If you consume caffeinated foods and drinks regularly, it would be useful to add up all the caffeine consumed on a daily basis for optimal health.

Theobromine

A 50g piece of dark chocolate has approximately 250-400mg of theobromine. (19, 20, 21)

Its chemical structure is similar to caffeine, but it does not cause some of the undesirable effects of caffeine.

Although not as much as caffeine, theobromine enhances mood and state of alertness, by inhibiting phosphodiesterases and blocking the adenosine receptors.

It may also haveanti-tumoral, anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular protecting properties. This component also relaxes and smooths the muscles, and the contraction of the heart muscles.

However, more studies are needed that prove that eating theobromine rich chocolate has these effects. (19)

Effects on Coughstudies on 300mg extracts of theobromine have shown that they reduce cough in cases of acute bronchitis. Nevertheless, more studies are necessary to determine whether eating dark chocolate has a similar effect.

On the other hand, theobromine also may alleviate cough caused by capsaicin (spicy irritant in chilies). (19)

Mineral contents

Dark chocolate is a major source of six important minerals. These are displayed in the following list, ordered from the highest to the lowest recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for men and for women. (22)

NOTE: The values presented are per 50g dark chocolate of 70-85% cocoa contents. (23, 24).

  • Copper – (0.9mg) 75% RDA for women, 53% RDA for men.
    Copper is essential in production of energy in cells, building strong bones, tissues such as connective tissue, brain, heart, and is used in red blood cells production.
  • Magnesium – (114mg) 36% RDA for women, 27% for men.
    Magnesium is essential for energy production, protein and DNA formation and repair, contraction and relaxation of muscles and regulation of neurotransmitters.
  • Iron – (6mg) 33% RDA for women, 75% RDA for men.
    Iron is essential in the transport of oxygen in the blood, storing oxygen in muscles, is part of many enzymes involved in energy production and strengthening the immune system.
  • Zinc – (1.7mg) 21% RDA for women, 12% RDA for men.
    Zinc is necessary for the body’s immune system, plays a role in cell division, cell growth, carbohydrate metabolism, enhances the action of insulin, is essential in men’s reproductive health and is used in the healing of wounds.
  • Manganese – (1mg) 20% RDA for women, 18% RDA for men
    Manganese is used in bone and connective tissue formation, is essential in brain and nerve function, production of sex hormones, is used in metabolism of fat and carbohydrates and in blood sugar regulation.
  • Phosphorus – (154mg) 15% RDA for both women and men.
    Phosphorus is essential in bone and teeth formation and health, and plays an important role in how the body uses fats and carbohydrates. It is used in the repair of the tissues and growth, maintenance and repair of cells.

Vitamin contents

Dark chocolate is relatively low in vitamins. (read more..)

MAIN POINTS

  • Non-fat cocoa solids contain important health promoting elements, such as polyphenols and antioxidants.
  • Some of the health benefits of these components, include reducing blood pressure and insulin resistance and improving fat metabolism.

Components of cocoa butter

Eating cocoa butter doesn’t have a significant effect on health. Cocoa butter is mostly composed of three fatty acids, each weighing about 30% of the total fat content. 

These fatty acids are:

  • Oleic acid– monounsaturated fatty acids (as in olive oil) (17)
  • Palmitic acid – saturated fatty acids
  • Stearic acid – an unusual type of saturated fatty acid that has no significant impact on cholesterol and is not associated with plaque formation (read more..)

This combination of fatty acids has little or no effect on the cardiovascular health. (25)

The process of making chocolate doesn’t involve high temperatures, so it retains the fatty acids found in raw cocoa beans.

MAIN POINTS

  • Cocoa butter is predominantly composed of fatty acids, with no significant health effects.

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