Far off the coast of Panama, on a remote island, there lives a native tribe called the Kuna, who maintain remarkably good health.
Despite their daily indulgence in decadent treats, they have six times less incidence of heart attack, 17 times less incidence of stroke, and 18 times less incidence of cancer than their mainland contemporaries.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, Kunas that are retirement-age and older have blood pressure rates that rival those of any healthy 20-year old.
So what’s their secret? Well, it isn’t good genes. It’s something delicious and nutritious.
The Food of the Gods…
The Kunas’ secret is chocolate.
The earliest known use of chocolate was in the form of the cacao bean (more commonly known as the cocoa bean) in the Amazon, back in 2,000 BC. That’s more than 4,000 years ago.
But it was the Mayans and Aztecs that really set the course for this amazing food. Both cultures believed cocoa had health benefits and mystical powers, including boosting fertility, strength, knowledge and heart health. They even believed that chocolate had aphrodisiac properties.
Cocoa also had religious importance for these cultures. One particular Aztec tale relates the story of a deity named Quetzalcoatl, who came from heaven on the beam of the morning star, bringing with him a cocoa tree he stole from heaven.
Based on this, the Aztecs frequently referred to chocolate as the “food of the gods,” and it was often used in religious ceremonies and rituals.
The cocoa beans were also used as currency, with records indicating that 400 cocoa beans equaled one Zontli, while 8000 beans equaled one Xiquipilli.
After visiting the Americas, Christopher Columbus took the many treasures he found back to Europe with him, including cocoa beans. But it wasn’t until Hernando Cortez introduced cocoa to King Charles V of Spain in 1528 that Europe caught chocolate fever.
Here’s where things get tricky for chocolate. See, for thousands of years, the Mayans and Aztecs drank their chocolate. In fact, the word chocolate comes from “xocoatl,” a Mayan word for “bitter water.”
The Mayans and Aztecs enjoyed chocolate and believed it to be a health elixir. They made a cold, unsweetened beverage out of fermented, roasted, and crushed cocoa beans; water; and spices, most commonly chili peppers.
Europeans added sugar and milk to this beverage. But it took another 300 years before the beverage became the bar that people are familiar with today, when a British chocolate maker, J. S. Fry, perfected solid chocolate for the first time in 1830.
By this time, the health elixir was gone and fat, sugar, and calories took its place…that is until the 20th century, when researchers discovered that there was something to this godly food.
Chock Full of Antioxidants…
One of the biggest claims to fame of cocoa is its antioxidant properties. Thanks to its high concentration of flavonoids, which are compounds found in thousands of plant-based foods, chocolate has a rather impressive ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) score.
ORAC is a commonly accepted measure of the antioxidant potential of a food. Some of the most recognized high-ORAC foods include blueberries and green tea.
Consider this: Chocolate has an ORAC of 13,120 per 100 grams while the ORAC for blueberries is 2,400 per 100 grams. Chocolate’s ORAC is also four times greater than that of green tea. In addition, two tablespoons of cocoa powder have double the ORAC of a 140 mL glass of red wine.1
But flavonoids (particularly flavonols) are not the only nutrient claim-to-fame of cocoa.
This little bean is also rich in other known antioxidants, including quercetin and epicatechin,2 as well as amino acids such as phenylethylamine and tryptophan, which help elevate mood.
Plus, cocoa has one of the highest concentrations of magnesium of any food. In addition to building bones and relaxing muscle, this mineral is a critical component for heart health. Which leads us to….
Chocolate is Good for You, Heart AND Soul…
Over the past 25 years, research has exploded regarding the benefits of cocoa in all aspects of heart health. Whether you are talking about basic heart health3, reducing oxidation of LDL cholesterol4, lowering blood pressure levels5, or even preventing blood clots6, chocolate seems to be a cardiologist’s dream.
But do the studies bear out these findings? When it comes to cocoa and dark chocolate, the answer seems to be yes.
In one randomized, crossover study 7, researchers gave 23 participants two different diets. One was an average American diet with controlled fiber and caffeine intake. The other was the same diet, but researchers added 22 grams of cocoa powder and 16 grams of dark chocolate.
They found that there was an eight percent greater LDL oxidation lag time in the chocolate group (meaning it took longer for LDL cholesterol to oxidize, which is a good thing). HDL cholesterol was also four percent higher in the chocolate group. And this was after ONE meal.
Researchers concluded, “Cocoa powder and dark chocolate may favorably affect cardiovascular disease risk status by modestly reducing LDL oxidation susceptibility, [and] increasing…antioxidant capacity and HDL-cholesterol concentrations.”
Pretty sweet results…pun intended.
But That’s Not All…
And it’s not just cholesterol levels that are helped by a diet containing chocolate.
A meta-analysis of 10 randomized, placebo-controlled studies8 of nearly 300 total people with either normal blood pressure or stage 1 hypertension found that regular consumption of cocoa-based foods correlated with lower blood pressure levels. In fact, the average difference was 4.5 Hg systolic (the upper number) and 2.5 Hg diastolic (the lower number).
Finally, in a gold standard, randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled study,9researchers tested the ability of dark chocolate to improve endothelial function. This is key for heart health because the endothelial cells line the walls of blood vessels and arteries.
When these cells are functioning at peak capacity, they help regulate blood pressure, keep your arteries clear of plaque and debris, and keep your blood flowing. However, clotting, atherosclerosis, and high blood pressure can result when dysfunction occurs. So healthy, functioning endothelial cells are key components of good health.
Researchers divided 21 healthy participants into two groups. The first group ate a 1.6-ounce, high-flavonoid dark chocolate bar every day for two weeks. The second group ate a low-flavonoid dark chocolate bar of the same size daily for the same period of time.
At the end of the study, researchers found that those in the high-flavonoid group enjoyed improved endothelium function when compared to the low-flavonoid group. Interestingly, both groups showed comparable changes to LDL oxidation, total antioxidant capacity, and blood pressure. In addition, there were no significant differences in body weight or BMI.
Thus, higher amounts of flavonoids provide more positive effects on endothelial function (and heart protection) without significantly changing one’s waistline. Remember, the dark chocolate bars were only 1.6 ounces.
The research all seems to agree that with dark chocolate and cocoa, dreams really can come true. That sweet treat IS good for you heart as well as your soul. But with a few caveats…
Dark and Dark Only…
All of the effective, positive studies on chocolate use either cocoa (unsweetened powder) or dark chocolate because darker chocolates have higher flavanol concentrations. As cocoa content decreases, antioxidant power is lost.
This is clearly shown by a study in the International Journal of Cardiology.10 In a randomized, single-blind study, researchers divided 39 healthy men into two groups. One group ate a flavonoid-rich dark chocolate bar (45 grams) every day for two weeks. The second group ate a white chocolate bar (35 grams) daily for two weeks.
At the end of the study, those who ate the dark chocolate had a statistically significant better flow of coronary blood than members of the white chocolate group. Researchers concluded, “Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate intake significantly improved coronary circulation in healthy adults…whereas non-flavonoid white chocolate had no such effects.”
This is key…dark chocolate. And milk chocolate is not an option either.
Not only does milk chocolate contain significantly less cocoa, it also tends to be higher in fat, sugar, and calories. Plus, there is evidence to suggest that milk binds to flavanols and interferes with their absorption.11 Whether one eats a candy bar with milk as an ingredient, adds milk to cocoa, or drinks it to wash down a brownie, the milk basically blocks the flavanols from performing their functions.
Again, dark is the key.
Choose Your Chocolate Well…
The danger of telling you that chocolate is good for you is the same danger as saying the sun is good for you. Get too much and you undo all the benefits. Plus, chocolate products themselves can start to cause more harm than good when you add in the sugar, fat, etc.
So, when it comes to chocolate, your best bet is to use unsweetened cocoa powder. That way you avoid the sugar/fat trap while still reaping all the benefits.
Just be sure to avoid Dutch processed cocoa because it reduces the flavanol content, which is the good part, in an attempt to produce a milder flavor.
There are many ways to use cocoa powder. You can add it to a smoothie, stir it into coconut yogurt (to avoid the issue of the milk blocking the flavanols), or even use it to make truffles.
Put raw coconut oil in a double boiler. Heat the water, melt the oil, and take remove it from the stove. Mix in raw cacao powder, along with almond butter, coconut flakes, and chili powder and/or cinnamon. Stevia can be used to sweeten it.
The best part of this recipe is that you can determine the measurements and proportions. Just add and stir ingredients until the mixture is nice and creamy. Then refrigerate the mixture until it is cool, roll into truffle-like balls, and freeze them.
But if you’re just craving a good old-fashioned chocolate bar, choose one with 70 percent cocoa content or higher (ideally 80-87 percent). These bars tend to be a bit more bitter than sweet, due to the higher cocoa concentration. Also, aim for a bar that has less than 10 grams of sugar per serving.
Finally, when it comes to quantity, think choc-a-little, not a lot. Limit yourself to one or 1.5 ounces a day at most. And, as always, go organic.
Then sit back, savor, and enjoy your deity status as you nibble on the nectar of the gods.
1Lee, KW et al. Cocoa has more phenolic phytochemcials and a higher antioxidant capacity than teas and red wine. J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Dec 3;51(25):7292-5.
2Sanchez-Rabaneda, F et al. Liquid chromatographic/electrospray ionization tandum mass spectrometric study of the phenolic composition of cocoa (Theobroma cacao). J Mass Spectrom. 2003 Jan;38(1):35-42.
3Janszky, I et al. Chocolate consumption and mortality following a first acute myocardial infarction: the Stockholm Heart Epidemiology Program. J Intern Med. 2009 Sep;266(3):248-57.
4Kondo, K et al. Inhibition of LDL oxidation by cocoa. Lancet. 1996 Nov 30;348(9040);1514.
5Taubert, D et al. Chocolate and blood pressure in elderly individuals with isolated systolic hypertension. JAMA. 2003 Aug 27;290(8):1029-30.
6Innes, AJ et al. Dark chocolate inhibits platelet aggregation in healthy volunteers. Platelets. 2003 Aug;14(5):325-7.
7Wan, Y et al. Effects of cocoa powder and dark chocolate on LDL oxidative susceptibility and prostaglandin concentrations in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Nov; 74(5):596-602.
8Desch, S et al. Effect of cocoa products on blood pressure: systemic review and meta-analysis. Am J Hypertens. 2010 Jan;23(1):97-103.
9Engler, MB et al. Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate improves endothelial function and increases plasma epicatechin concentrations in healthy adults. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Jun;23(3):197-204.
10Shiina, Y et al. Acute effect of oral flavonoid-rich dark chocolate intake on coronary circulation, as compared with non-flavonoid white chocolate, by transthoracic Doppler echocardiography in healthy adults. Int J Cardiol. 2009 Jan 24;131(3):424-9.
11Aggarwal, BB. Healing Spices. (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 2011), page 94.