By now, you’ve seen the headlines: Cocoa is good for you.
Deep within that scrumptious chocolate bar or frothing cup of hot cocoa rest powerful bioactive compounds called flavanols (also present in berries, tea and wine), linked to everything from preventing heart attacks and dementia to stabilizing blood sugar and boosting sports performance. But before you sink your teeth into another candy bar, consider this: To get enough cocoa flavanols (600 to 750 mg daily) to prompt such probable health benefits, you’d have to eat as much as 1,000 calories of dark chocolate, or many thousands of calories of sugar-and-fat-loaded milk chocolate each day.
“The evidence is very promising that cocoa flavanols could reduce risk of heart disease and other disorders,” notes cocoa researcher JoAnn Manson, M.D., chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “But we wouldn’t recommend trying to obtain large quantities by simply eating more chocolate. The added calorie intake would be too high.”
Instead, she and other nutrition experts suggest this: Try to consume cocoa in as pure a state as possible—as unsweetened cocoa powder, cacao nibs or sparing amounts of high-quality dark chocolate—and incorporate its earthy, savory taste into a variety of meals.
“We are talking about a nutrient-dense, phytochemical-rich food that can be eaten in breakfasts, desserts and every way in between,” says registered dietitian Matt Ruscigno, coauthor of Superfoods for Life: Cacao (Fair Winds, 2014), a cookbook that features everything from smoothies to sandwiches, quinoa and lasagna. “Today in the Western world it has unfortunately become mostly just a candy bar. But it has so much more to offer,” Ruscigno says.
From Bitter Bean to Sinful Bar
As far back as 3000 B.C., chefs in Ecuador were likely brewing pulp from the fruit of the Theobroma cacao, aka cocoa tree, to make a fermented alcoholic drink, says Santa Fe–based chocolate historian Mark Sciscenti. By around 2000 B.C., residents of southern Mexico and Central America were trading cacao beans (the base ingredient for cocoa powder and chocolate) as a valuable currency. Mayans and Aztecs dried and roasted the beans, mixed them into a paste with cornmeal and spices, and crumbled them into water for an ancient, often cold, chocolate beverage reserved for religious ceremonies, medicinal treatments and elite treats. “Its consumption was pretty much the exclusive right of the rulers, the priests and the warriors,” Sciscenti says.
Notably absent was sugar, leaving those early cocoa drinks with a bitter taste. Only in the late 1500s, when cacao beans made their way to Spain, did people start adding mild sweeteners. By the 1700s—after the French and Italians piled on a little more sugar—hot chocolate had become a European luxury item, lauded for its energy-boosting and aphrodisiac properties. It would take another century until, in the mid-1800s, inventor Joseph Fry developed the first chocolate bar.
Today, according to market research firm Mintel, the average American eats about 9.5 pounds of chocolate each year—the vast majority of it milk chocolate. That’s too bad, says Sciscenti, because all of that added milk and sugar negates many of the health benefits that come from cocoa.
The good news: Traditional uses of cocoa have been enjoying a renaissance, with vegan and vegetarian athletes like Ruscigno stirring raw cacao powder or cocoa powder (see the Glossary for the difference between cocoa and cacao) into their breakfast smoothies, artisanal beverage makers like Sciscenti crafting old-school hot chocolates again and high-end chefs mixing it with herbs to create spice rubs for meats.
“I love the earthiness that unsweetened cocoa brings to dishes and the hint of bitterness it has,” says registered dietitian and chef Sara Haas. “It makes a great platform for savory recipes and adds interest to dishes (like beef, chicken or duck) that are otherwise a little one-note.”
A New Weapon Against Heart Disease?
One of the first hints of cocoa’s powerful health properties came from a tribe of Kuna Indians living off the coast of Panama. They drink huge quantities of minimally processed cocoa (as much as five cups per day) and deaths from cancer, hypertension and cardiovascular disease are extremely rare among them, according to research conducted at Harvard. When they move away and stop drinking cocoa, their incidence of disease spikes.
More recent research has offered hints as to why. Cocoa flavanols are believed to trigger natural production of nitric oxide (the active ingredient in many cardiovascular drugs) triggering artery walls to relax, letting blood, oxygen and nutrients flow more freely to the heart, brain and muscles. Cocoa may also diminish inflammation and help stabilize blood sugar, which could support brain health too, Manson says.
One recent study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that healthy men and women ages 35–60 who consumed a drink containing cocoa flavanols twice a day for four weeks had lower blood pressure, better blood flow and improved cholesterol. In all, their risk of being diagnosed with cardiovascular disease within the next 10 years fell 22 percent. Another study, by Columbia University researchers, found that volunteers who drank a cocoa beverage containing 900 mg of flavanols per day for three months had increased blood flow to a region of the brain associated with age-related memory loss and performed better on memory tests.
Small amounts of stimulants like caffeine and theobromine may also contribute to cocoa’s “feel-good” effect, says Ruscigno. Because it is nutrient-dense, boosts blood flow to muscles and may have antioxidant properties that protect muscle cells from damage, cocoa is also becoming increasingly popular among athletes as either a pick-me-up before or during a workout, or a recovery drink afterward.
Manson stresses that, thus far, human studies around cocoa have been small and preliminary so it’s too early to say for sure just how much cocoa flavanols people should be getting every day. “Large-scale trials are needed,” she says. To meet that need, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School just launched the COSMOS (Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study), the largest study yet of cocoa’s health benefits. The four-year study will look at 18,000 men and women, some of whom will take 600 mg daily of cocoa flavanols in the form of supplements to see what impact—if any—cocoa has on heart attack, stroke and other health measures.
Until then, aim for 400 to 700 mg per day, mostly via unsweetened cocoa, and go easy on the candy bars. “Chocolate in moderation is perfectly fine,” Manson says. “But it is not a health food.”
- ½ cup raw cacao powder or nibs
- 3 cups water
- 1 teaspoon fresh or dried minced chile pepper, or to taste
- 1 cinnamon stick, crushed
- Pinch of salt
- 1 vanilla bean
- Take a mortar and pestle, and grind the nibs into a powder; or if your powder has pieces in it, grind that into a finer texture. You can also use a food processor.
- Add the water, chile and cinnamon stick to a medium-size pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain, saving the chile water. Mix the chile water with the cacao and salt. Bring to a boil, stirring. Lower to simmer, and cook for 15–20 minutes. Scrape the vanilla bean, and add both the scrapings and the bean to the concoction for the last few minutes of simmering. Serve hot or warm.
Try other delicious cocoa recipes: