I enjoy reading "HerbClip," a summary of recent news about plant-based health benefits. The newsletter is published by the American Botanical Council, an important organization in the USA (and one that is very active globally as well). Plants have few champions -- I'd say that the ABC is one of the most important voices. (Click on the headline of this post to visit the homepage of non-profit ABC).
Herbclip recently described many of the findings on this plant, one that has been shown to have a great benefit to the cardiovascular system. An interesting piece of research was published earlier this year in the journal Circulation.
In the piece from Circulation, the authors describe a bit of history for cocoa. Cocoa consumption dates back to 1600 BCE and was introduced from the New World to the Europeans in the 16th century. Cocoa is processed in many different ways, and of course the major processing method led to the development of chocolate. Purported health benefits of cocoa consumption include improvements in heart function, digestion, and kidney and bowel function. However, in a discussion of cocoa's health benefits, It is very important to distinguish between the natural product cocoa and the processed product chocolate, because the fat and sugar content of chocolate really does nothing healthy. The authors note in their research article that the effects of cocoa may not apply to chocolate.
The Kuna Indians, a tribe indigenous to islands off the coast of Panama, was the first population to show health benefits from cocoa consumption. The Kunas consume what is considered to be huge amounts of cocoa and yet they have "markedly lower" cardiovascular mortality than other Pan-American citizens and no age-dependent increase in blood pressure or decline in kidney function. This by itself is a strong pointer to what could be gained by more cocoa consumption.
The authors point out that this mechanism is environmental and not genetic, because these cocoa benefits are lost after migration to urban Panama City where cocoa is replaced with lower flavanol content foods. A number of other cited studies shows that the health benefits of cocoa may be linked to its constituent flavonoids (e.g., flavanols and procyanidins)—a subgroup of polyphenols. Both the flavanol content and the total antioxidant capacity have been shown to increase plasma after cocoa consumption.
These same biocompounds (flavanols) can be found in high concentrations in grape juice, wine, and various berries. In cocoa, conventional chocolate processing can markedly reduce the levels of flavanols. Detrimental effects to the healthy content include roasting or fermenting the beans. In addition, the location where the cacao beans are grown also determines the flavanol content.
Research has shown that cocoa consumption affects nitric oxide levels in a positive way, increasing its production in humans. Cocoa flavanols have also been shown to improve circulation to the brain in elderly subjects, suggesting protection against dementia and stroke. A number of studies also appear to correlate cocoa consumption with lowered blood pressure, with some evidence for reduced insulin resistance. It has also displayed antioxidant properties, increasing overall antioxidant capacity and decreasing several markers of oxidation. Even cocoa butter, which is the fat portion of cocoa, appears to not affect cholesterol negatively as most fats would.
What a plant! If only chocolate brought with it all of the health benefits of cocoa.