Cocoa is a Health Food

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Cocoa, which is found more in dark than milk chocolate, is indeed a health food.

A review, published in the November issue of the journal Antioxidants and Redox Signaling, notes that cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, actually has a long history of use based on its purported healing properties.

Consumption of foods and beverages made from cocoa beans dates back to at least 460 A.D., and medicinal use began among indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica and diffused to Europe in the mid-1500s.

In the last decade, however, there has been an explosion of scientific research on the health effects of cocoa and the products from which it is derived. The findings have included generally favorable effects of cocoa or chocolate consumption on cardiovascular health, along with possible favorable effects with regard to controlling blood glucose levels, reducing chronic inflammation, increasing blood flow in the brain, and protecting the skin from sun damage.

Other research has sought to find out what specific components of cocoa or chocolate play a role in conferring these potential health benefits. Much of this research has focused on flavonoids, a form of antioxidants found in cocoa powder. Dark chocolate has more flavonoids compared to milk chocolate because it is made from proportionately higher amounts of cocoa powder. For this reason, and also because it contains less fat, dark chocolate is thought to be more healthful than milk chocolate.

Since cocoa is mainly consumed in the form of chocolate candy or commercial cocoa drink mixes, which are concentrated sources of calories, any potential benefits of these products would need to be weighed against the risk of weight gain if consumed on a regular basis. This is why Katz and his colleagues have been conducting studies to determine what minimal amount of chocolate – or the cocoa from which it is made – will exert potential health benefits.

As Katz notes, "We can say that dark chocolate and cocoa do 'qualify' as health foods.  But we must hasten to qualify that designation!  Too much chocolate of any kind can add up fast to too many calories.  And there is much we don't know, including the net effects, over time, of adding chocolate to diets as a matter of routine; and the best dose for both enjoyment and health benefits. That said, the evidence is good enough for me - and I do make dark chocolate a regular, if moderate, addition to my own diet."