Published On: Tue, May 7th, 2013

Pure cocoa powder shows evidence in cancer, cardiovascular diseases prevention

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Going by the taste of pure cocoa powder, many fun seekers will dislike it, because of its bitter nature. However, recent studies have shown that pure cocoa powder is a power food item packed with antioxidants, phytochemicals, minerals and the building blocks of neurotransmitters with far-reaching implications for treating cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases.

Theobromacacoa, the scientific name of the plant from which raw cocoa is made and the main ingredient in chocolate, literally means “food of the gods.”  It is a famous plant with a lengthy and rich history; a symbol of love that cuts across cultures; and other “feel good” hormones.


Although Theobroma Cacao is believed to have originated from Central and South America, but Nigeria is one of the nations of the world gifted with cocoa. Record has it that Nigeriawas the fourth-largest producer of cocoa beans in the world, behind Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia. However, the situation changed after petroleum was discovered in the country. As at today, fourteen of the 36 states of Nigeria grow cocoa. They are: Abia, Adamawa, AkwaIbom, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Ekiti, Kogi, Kwara, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo and Taraba.


According to a study, conducted at the department of MedicalBiochemistry, School of Basic Medical Science, College of Medicine, University of Benin, Edo State, titled “TotalphenolicsandantioxidantcapacityofsomeNigerianbeverages” stated that increased antioxidant intake may protect humans from diseases as oxidative events in vivo  may play a role in the pathogenesis of many diseases which  includes  cancer, cardiovascular diseases and arthritis.

The research, which was supervised by H.A.ObohandI. P. Omoregbe aimed at determining the total phenol, flavonoid and vitamin C contentsin some Nigerian beverages (coffee,teaandcocoa) and assess the free radical scavenging abilities of the aqueous extracts using four different in vitro assays.

“Beverages (Coffee, tea and cocoa) contain polyphenols and flavonoids that have diverse beneficial biochemical and antioxidant effects.These beverages may play an important role in improving beneficial intestinal microflora, as well as providing immunity against intestinal disorders and in protecting cell membranes from oxidative damage.”

The resultsfortheevaluation ofantioxidant activityoftheNigerianbeverages,asassessedbyfourinvitromethods showed that cocoa powder had the highest iron II chelating ability. The total phenolic content of the beverages had good correlation with total flavonoids, DPPH, ABTS and FRAP radical scavenging abilities. The results suggested that the beverages possess significant radical scavenging ability that may be due to the presence of the antioxidant.

The study further stated that excessive accumulation of free radicals results in oxidative stress. This is one of the main causes of initiation and progression of diseases and premature aging. The antioxidant system in healthy humans functions to scavenge free radicals and turn them to harmless particles. Adverse factors (stress, diseases, certain powerful drugs, environmental pollution, smoking,   alcoholism, low quality food products, etc) increase free radical generation, which could damage DNA, proteins, lipids carbohydrates and vascular walls.These could result in disorganisation of normal processes in human bodies.

Speaking with Professor OlukemiOdukoya, head, department of Pharmacognosy, faculty of pharmacy, Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), in an exclusive interview, she supported the findings that pure cocoa powder has the capacity to  treat and prevent cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, cancer,diabetes and other chronic degenerative diseases, as a result of its high antioxidants content.

“Researches have shown that cocoa has more flavonoids than any known food and if you have a substance that will mop up free radicals from the body, of course the person will be healed from any condition, and remain healthy.What is the activity of the moringa tea we are all using today? It is because of the antioxidant activity to mop up free radicals, that is the main activity of moringa, and that is part of the roles cocoa powder is playing.

“I remembered I had to go to Ife, in Osun State, some years back to see a big cocoa merchant, in order to get some cocoa powder for a patient.I went out of my way to go to Ife, got the cocoa and ground it in Lagos into powder. Of course, I added some other grounded leaf powder, which I know has high antioxidant, and the patient got well,” she attested.

The Pharmacognosy professor further stated that there is no doubt that Cocoa powder has high antioxidants activity, and she expressed her delight in the fact that  Nigerians are going back to the use of raw cocoa powder these days, and not just the cocoa we take in chocolates and in beverages already processed, but pure cocoa powder.

“Raw cocoa in itself, taking the seeds raw, drying and powdering them, and making it as tea in teabags, taking it as a decoction in itself is a medicine.”

“I have not heard of adverse effect, and in as much as we are asking people to take natural products, we encourage them to take ones that have been used as food. Back into the villages, where cocoa farmers live, they have been taking cocoa powder with pap, as a medicine, and we have not heard of any toxicity. As a scientist, I will prefer the toxicity to be done, at least for the academic aspect, to have something documented,” she remarked.

Nutritional content of Cocoa powder

What is it about raw organic cocoa powder that makes it such a powerful medicinal food? For starters, is it is packed full of antioxidant-rich phytonutrients.  Antioxidants help to quell the fire of free radicals our bodies generate and are exposed to every day. One way to measure the antioxidant potential of a food is by its ORAC value. ORAC is the acronym for “Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity” and is a measure of the potential antioxidant capacity of a food.  In theory, the higher the ORAC value, the higher the concentration of antioxidants present in a food. Organic raw cocoa has the highest ORAC value of any food.  The US Department of Agriculture/Journal of the American Chemical Society has released data on high ORAC value foods per 100 grams compared to unprocessed raw cocoa (28,000): dark chocolate (13,210), prunes (5,770), blueberries (2,400), kale (1,770) and broccoli (890).

The phytonutrients that give raw cocoa powder its high antioxidant value are a group of compounds called polyphenols or more specifically flavonoids.  Cocoa has more flavonoids than any known food.  Two flavonoids in particular, catechin and epicatchin, are found in extremely high amounts in cocoa powder and have copious amounts of research supporting their health benefits.  These two flavonoids, along with hundreds of other known phytochemicals in cocoa appear to prevent and even treat some of today’s most devastating diseases. Interestingly, this myriad of flavonoids in cocoa appears to be absorbed intact into the human blood stream, which allows them to exert their medicinal power on the body.

Cocoa contains about 0.8 mg of copper per 100 g and is therefore a great food source of copper.Copper has many uses in the body, including the oxygenation of red blood cells and aiding in cellular energy production.  Cocoa also has the highest amount of magnesium of any known food source,approximately131 mg per 100 g of cocoa.  This mineral, which plays a significant role in cocoa’s health giving properties, is required by over 300 hundred enzymes in the body and is crucial for cardiovascular health, optimal blood pressure and protein synthesis.

Cocoa and chocolate have the reputation of making people euphoric and happy.   This is probably why chocolate is the gift of choice on Valentine’s Day.  There is a wide array of chemicals in cocoa that cause euphoria, including phenyethlamine (PEA), serotonin, tyramine and anandamide.  One of the most well-known is phenyethlamine (PEA) which helps the body release its own opium-like compounds, called the endorphins, and also boosts levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine.  Endorphins and dopamine gives one a sense of well-being and can act as an anti-depressant.  The other “feel-good” chemicals in cocoa are serotonin and tyramine depressants which boost serotonin levels.  Tyramine helps reduce anxiety and balance mood, but can also trigger migraines in sensitive people.  Another constituent found in cocoa that alters the mental state in a pleasurable way is anandamide, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means “bliss”. This chemical binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as THC, the active constituent in marijuana.It is no wonder that cocoa has the reputation of being an antidepressant, aphrodisiac and a calming stimulant.

Difference between pure cocoa powder and Chocolate

So what about chocolate?  Can we consider it a health food? It is important to realise that most research is conducted on raw cocoa powder and not chocolate.  With that being said there is some indication that chocolate can be a healthy addition to the diet, but the real magic happens with raw organic cocoa powder.  As the sugar and milk portion increases in chocolate, the health benefits of the chocolate decreases.  The greatest health benefits are derived from unprocessed cocoa rather than a processed version of it and so raw organic cocoa is superior to dark chocolate which is better than milk chocolate.  Dutch processed or alkalinized cocoa helps to reduce the acidity of raw cocoa, but also destroys some of its medicinal power.  Raw cocoa that is not organic contains pesticide and herbicide residues.


Health Effects of Cocoa powder

Lowers Blood Pressure: Through randomised controlled trials, many researchers, including Fisher et al. in the Journal of Hypertension and Taubert et al. in JAMA have demonstrated that habitual cocoa intake lowers blood pressure via its high arginine content and the nitric oxide pathway.

Prevents Cardiovascular Diseases: Lowering blood pressure reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. Other protective mechanisms cocoa can offer against cardiovascular disease come from its potent antioxidant profile. The flavonoids in cocoa raise HDL, the “good” cholesterol and both lower and protect LDL or “bad” cholesterol  from being oxidized (damaged by free radicals) in the blood, which helps fight against plaque formation.

Prevents  Diabetes:One of the most deadly complications from diabetes mellitus (type II diabetes) is heart disease. Cocoa protects us from these complications and also helps to promote insulin sensitivity.

Cancer Prevention: Cancer is fast becoming the number one killer of Americans. Colon and reproductive cancers like breast and prostate cancer are among the most common types of cancers. Components of cocoa, notably the polyphenols, have shown to stop proliferation of breast, prostate and colon cancer cells, while sparing normal cells by researchers at Georgetown University’s department of Oncology and others.

Boasts Immune System: Research is also showing cocoa powder to help immune function, cognition, and detoxification.  Cocoa can both up regulate specific immune cells and help modulate immune function. It appears to increase brain oxygenation, which has beneficial implications for diseases like dementia. And finally, raw organic cocoa powder, with its high fibre content, has been shown to facilitate the excretion and detoxification of environmental contaminants from the body.

It is easy to see that cocoa not only plays a multi-factorial role in protecting us from chronic degenerative diseases but also goes a long way to making us feel good by its mood enhancing and nutritive properties. It may not impart immortality to us yet, but it is certainly immortalised in human history. How wise the ancient peoples were to realise the powerful and far reaching implications of this amazing plant.Modern research is beginning to prove what the ancients already knew: raw organic cocoa is truly a gift from the gods.

Cocoa Improves Blood Vessel Function in Aged

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that drinking a standardised flavanol-rich cocoa beverage improved several measures of blood vessel function, especially among older study participants. Flavanols are the natural compounds in cocoa that are increasingly being linked to promising circulatory benefits – including improved blood flow and a reduced tendency to form damaging clots. At the study’s completion, significant improvements in vessel function following the consumption of flavanol rich cocoa were seen in both young and older adults, while aging has previously been shown to lead to a deterioration of blood vessel function.

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2002

European Journal of Cancer Prevention 2008

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Pure cocoa powder shows evidence in cancer, cardiovascular diseases prevention