Health benefits of cocoa include relief from high blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity, constipation, diabetes, bronchial asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, and various neurodegenerative diseases. It helps reduce the risk of cancer and improve cardiovascular as well as brain health. It also helps in treating copper deficiency, quick wound healing, and skincare. It has mood-enhancing properties and exerts protective effects against neurotoxicity.
What is Cocoa?
Cocoa refers to the low-fat constituent of the finely ground cacao beans, which are the fermented seeds of the cacao tree. The Latin name is Theobroma cacao, which translates to “Food of the Gods”. These ground beans, known as cocoa liquor or cocoa mass, also contain cocoa butter, which is a non-dairy, naturally occurring fat present in cacao beans. About 50-60 percent of cocoa liquor consists of cocoa butter.
The cacao tree stands about 12-25 feet tall and grows naturally in tropical climates. The fruit of the cocoa tree is a pod full of sweet pulp enfolding a cluster of about 20-40 cacao seeds.
Cocoa, dry powder, unsweetened
Serving Size :
Water [g] 3
Energy [kcal] 228
Protein [g] 19.6
Total lipid (fat) [g] 13.7
Carbohydrate, by difference [g] 57.9
Fiber, total dietary [g] 37
Sugars, total [g] 1.75
Calcium, Ca [mg] 128
Iron, Fe [mg] 13.86
Magnesium, Mg [mg] 499
Phosphorus, P [mg] 734
Potassium, K [mg] 1524
Sodium, Na [mg] 21
Zinc, Zn [mg] 6.81
Vitamin C, total ascorbic acid [mg] 0
Thiamin [mg] 0.08
Riboflavin [mg] 0.24
Niacin [mg] 2.19
Vitamin B-6 [mg] 0.12
Folate, DFE [µg] 32
Vitamin B-12 [µg] 0
Vitamin A, RAE [µg] 0
Vitamin A, IU [IU] 0
Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) [mg] 0.1
Vitamin D (D2 + D3) [µg] 0
Vitamin D [IU] 0
Vitamin K (phylloquinone) [µg] 2.5
Fatty acids, total saturated [g] 8.07
Fatty acids, total monounsaturated [g] 4.57
Fatty acids, total polyunsaturated [g] 0.44
Cholesterol [mg] 0
Caffeine [mg] 230
Sources include : USDA
As per the USDA Nutrient Database, cocoa is rich in minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium.  It also contains vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, and vitamin B6, E, and K. It is a good source of zinc, iron, and sodium while providing the body with energy, carbohydrates, protein, and dietary fibers. It contains 0 cholesterol.
In addition to this, it also contains caffeine content. It contains cocoa butter, which according to USDA Nutrient Database, is a source of vitamin E, vitamin K, and fatty acids. It is a mixture of monounsaturated fats like oleic acid and saturated fats, namely stearic acid and palmitic acid.
It is a lot more than just a guilty pleasure!
Health Benefits of Cocoa
Let’s look at some of the major health benefits of cocoa.
Lowers High Blood Pressure
Dr. Dirk Taubert in this research  has found that consuming cocoa-containing foods helped lower blood pressure levels in a small sample size of participants. The flavonoid-rich bean aids in lowering blood pressure and improving the elasticity of blood vessels. Research shows positive changes in the systolic and diastolic blood pressure as a consequence of consuming cocoa-based products instead of black and green tea.  These favorable changes are attributed to the presence of antioxidants in it that stimulates the production of nitric oxide, which helps keep blood vessels relaxed. Furthermore, this helps in maintaining a healthy circulatory system.
A comparative research study published in 2003 in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry has made it evident that cocoa exhibits higher antioxidant activity than black tea, green tea, and red wine. Antioxidants help neutralize the oxygen-based free radicals that are present in the body. In addition to this, it is abundant in phenolic phytochemicals and possesses a high amount of flavonoids as well. Zinc, present in it, helps protect you against oxidative stress, which is a major cause behind accelerated aging.
Improves Brain Health
Cocoa contains a high amount of flavonoids, like flavonol. Research led by Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg has suggested that flavanol may aid in maintaining a healthy brain. These neuroprotective benefits could also have favorable effects on learning and memory functions. The findings have advocated that the consumption of cocoa-based products enhances the flow of blood to the brain and they have provided evidence of the therapeutic potential for curing vascular disorders.
Improves Cardiovascular Health
Cocoa powder is rich in flavonoids – namely, procyanidin, catechin, and epicatechin, which have antioxidant properties. In moderate amounts, it can help in protecting the cells from damage, while strengthening the heart. It prevents the formation of fatal blood clots, which can lead to stroke or cardiac failure. The flavonoids possess anti-platelet aggregating effects and modulate primary hemostasis, which is the measure of time blood takes to clot. This ultimately helps prevent atherosclerosis and thrombosis.
Balances Cholesterol Levels
A 2004 study shows that cocoa may possess hypoglycemic and hypocholesterolemic effects on both glucose and cholesterol levels, respectively.  It helps reduce triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in the body and gives a noteworthy rise to HDL (good) cholesterol levels in the body.
Regulates Blood Sugar Levels
A research study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that consumption of cocoa powder is effective in improving insulin resistance and glucose metabolism. These mechanisms, in turn, aid in regulating sugar levels in the body. The proanthocyanidins derived from this product may help in inhibiting the cataract formation occasionally induced by diabetes, according to one animal study. The intake of this flavanol-rich bean also has therapeutic potential in improving the vascular function of diabetics on various medications
Relieves Bronchial Asthma
Cacao beans contain xanthine and theophylline, which aid in relaxing bronchial spasms and opening constricted bronchial tubes. This gives it anti-asthmatic properties and is valuable in curing various allergies, including asthma and shortness of breath.
Research published in 2014 in the International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology suggests that unsweetened powder has anti-asthmatic properties as it contains theobromine.
Speeds up Healing
Cocoa extracts have been trusted for their therapeutic and wound-healing properties in the manufacturing of natural medicinal products. The extracts help in preventing the development of various kinds of infections in the body. If consumed along with the appropriate medication, it has also been considered helpful in eradicating Helicobacter pylori bacteria from the body.
A study has shown the potential benefits of cocoa in preventing high-fat-diet-induced obesity. Its intake helps in modulating lipid metabolism and reducing the synthesis and transport of fatty acids. It also improves thermogenesis, which is the mechanism of heat production in white adipose tissues and the liver.
Consuming cocoa powder has shown antidepressant-like effects on certain physiological processes. Its flavonols help enhance the mood, fight depression, and promote cognitive activities during persistent mental exertion. The presence of the neurochemical phenylethylamine in cocoa also helps in enhancing feelings of contentment and promoting aphrodisiac effects.
Consumption of cocoa husk exerts therapeutic effects in treating chronic constipation and bowel function diseases, particularly in children. According to a study done on pediatric patients, consumption of fiber-rich cocoa products resulted in faster colonic, rectal, and intestinal transit times. Regular consumption enhances bowel function.This is because it helps reduce bowel movement time, increase the frequency of bowel movements, and softens consistency of stool without inducing any other side effects like gastrointestinal discomfort.
Cocoa has demonstrated beneficial effects in inhibiting the growth of cancer cells without affecting the growth of normal healthy cells. Studies conducted by a team of researchers in France have provided evidence regarding the chemopreventive and anti-proliferative qualities exerted by the flavonols and procyanidins on colon cancer.
Treats Copper Deficiency
Cocoa extends its benefits to treating copper deficiency in patients on long-term enteral nutrition. The bean is quite valuable in copper substitution therapy, which results in significant improvements in the hemoglobin level, white blood cell count, and copper content. It is considered valuable as a copper-rich component. So, it may be added to the diet to maintain normal levels of copper, as well as a remedy for treating copper deficiency in such conditions. It helps in preventing and treating anemia, neutropenia, and leukopenia.
Reduces Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Cocoa powder has been shown to exert calming effects on people suffering from chronic fatigue. Its tension reducing effects are attributed to the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin, anandamide, and phenylethylamine in the brain. These exert protective effects on the neuronal cells and helps in combating chronic fatigue syndrome.
Research findings suggest that the consumption of flavonol-rich cocoa helps in decreasing the effects of UV-induced erythema, and reducing skin roughness and scaling. It may also aid in enhancing skin elasticity, hydration, and density. Epicatechin present in cacao aids in increasing the oxygen saturation of hemoglobin, stimulating the healthy flow of blood in the dermal (skin) tissues, and contributing to endogenous photo-protection. It is also used in the preparation of various skin care products.
Cocoa has flavonoids, such as epicatechin and catechin, which have been found to have an anti-neurodegenerative effect. In a rat model study conducted by Cho et al., cocoa procyanidins (a type of flavonoid) had a protective effect against oxidative stress, which has strongly linked to the development of neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. Further human studies are required to research the potential benefits of this bean against neurodegenerative diseases over time.
Prevents Magnesium Deficiency
Another benefit of cocoa products is the magnesium it provides, which may help prevent ill effects of a deficiency. The regular consumption of such products may prove beneficial in preventing the adverse effects caused by a diet lacking in magnesium for an extended period of time.
In addition to cacao beans, the therapeutic utilization of cacao bark, butter, and flowers have also been valued since ancient times for treating various diseases like skin ailments, bowel malfunction, and wounds. In order to obtain the benefits of cocoa, it is important to consume the correctly sourced product. A small piece of dark, unsweetened or unprocessed chocolate may be considered to add some flavor and health to your diet.
Cocoa: A Culinary Gift
Cocoa has been treasured worldwide for its usage in the manufacturing of chocolate and other sweet delicacies.
Cacao beans are roasted, husked, ground and, depending on the desired product, sweetened and flavored to produce chocolate.
Several types of chocolate are produced from cacao beans, including unsweetened chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate.
Cocoa butter is also used as a substitute for gelatin to enhance the flavor and aroma of food.
Cocoa butter melts easily providing a smooth and creamy taste to many preparations making them even more palatable. These benefits make cocoa butter a healthy, plant-based alternative to be included in recipes, rather than gelatin, which is derived from animal by-products.
Note: Commercially available chocolates and cocoa-products may not be rich in the original beneficial flavonols of cacao beans since they can be get destroyed by over-processing.
Uses of Cocoa
Cocoa mulch is a by-product and is produced from the discarded shells of cacao beans. Mulch is valuable in efforts to reduce garden weeds, regulate the temperature and increase the nutritive value of soil, and prevent soil erosion.
Roasting cacao beans release their shells, which are further used to produce cocoa mulch. This is rich in naturally available macro-nutrients such as potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen, all of which are valuable for plant health.
Cacao beans have water retention capability too.