Cacao is the raw form of chocolate. Native to the rain forests of South America, cacao is one of the strongest antioxidants found on Earth.
Cacao has more antioxidant flavonoids than any other food tested so far – including blueberries, red wine, and both black and green teas. There are many studies in medical literature pointing out to the properties of cacao, which may be considered with good reason a real superfood.
The main properties of cacao include a protective effect on cardio-vascular system. Cacao acts as a vasodilator on bloods vessels, while reducing blood clotting and improving circulation. As a direct consequence, cacao improves heart rate and reduces blood pressure, while LDL cholesterol is lowered.
According to an early study published on Nutrition, eating 6.7 grams of chocolate per day represents the ideal amount for a protective effect against inflammation and subsequent cardiovascular disease. It is likely that gourmands hadn’t jumped for joy on that occasion as they probably would have preferred bigger amounts, however this study has definitely been a good point to start.
The Moli-sani Project is one of the largest epidemiological studies ever conducted in Europe, over a population of more than 20,000 inhabitants of the region of Molise, Central Italy. By studying the participants recruited, researchers focused on the complex mechanism of inflammation. It is indeed well-known that a chronic inflammatory state represents a risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease, from myocardial infarction to stroke. Keeping the inflammation process under control has become therefore a major issue for prevention programs. From a practical point of view, the results of this study indicate that eating half a bar of dark chocolate (about 50 grams, corresponding to 6.7 grams a day) during the week may become a healthy habit.
This study gave rise to other researches. According to another more recent study, published online in the British Medical Journal, high levels of chocolate consumption might be associated with a one third reduction in the risk of developing heart disease. The findings of this study, presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Paris, confirm results of existing studies that generally agree on a potential beneficial link between chocolate consumption and lesser incidence of heart diseases.
Eating chocolate can beat midday slump?
According to Larry Stevens, Professor of Psychological Science at the Northern Arizona University, chocolate is indeed a stimulant and it activates the brain in a really special way, by increasing brain characteristics of attention while affecting blood pressure levels. The study, published in the journal NeuroRegulation and sponsored by the Hershey Company, is the first to examine the acute effects of chocolate on attentional characteristics of the brain and the first-ever study of chocolate consumption performed using electroencephalography, or EEG technology.
The results for the participants who consumed the 60 percent cacao chocolate showed that the brain was more alert and attentive after consumption. Their blood pressure also increased for a short time.
The most interesting results came from one of the control conditions, a 60 percent cacao chocolate which included L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea that acts as a relaxant. This combination hasn’t been introduced to the market yet, so you won’t find it on the candy aisle. But it is of interest to Hershey and the researchers.
“L-theanine is a really fascinating product that lowers blood pressure and produces what we call alpha waves in the brain that are very calm and peaceful,” Stevens said. “We thought that if chocolate acutely elevates blood pressure, and L-theanine lowers blood pressure, then maybe the L-theanine would counteract the short-term hypertensive effects of chocolate.”
The chocolate cure for emotional stress
The “chocolate cure” for emotional stress is getting new support from a clinical trial published online in ACS’ Journal of Proteome Research. It found that eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in the bodies of people feeling highly stressed. Everyone’s favorite treat also partially corrected other stress-related biochemical imbalances.
In this study, Scientists identified reductions in stress hormones and other stress-related biochemical changes in volunteers who rated themselves as highly stressed and ate dark chocolate for two weeks. According to the scientists:
“The study provides strong evidence that a daily consumption of 40 grams [1.4 ounces] during a period of 2 weeks is sufficient to modify the metabolism of healthy human volunteers”.
Dark chocolate boosts athletic performance
Besides its positive effects on cardio-vascular health, a recent study undertaken at London’s Kingston University has now found that the tasty treat of dark chocolate can help give sports enthusiasts an extra edge in their fitness training.
A team led by postgraduate research student Rishikesh Kankesh Patel discovered that dark chocolate provides similar benefits to beetroot juice, now taken regularly by elite athletes after studies showed it can improve performance. “Beetroot juice is rich in nitrates, which are converted to nitric oxide in the body. This dilates blood vessels and reduces oxygen consumption — allowing athletes to go further for longer,” Mr Patel explained.
Dr Owen Spendiff, who has conducted studies around beetroot juice and athletic performance, said that Mr Patel’s work showcased some of the cutting-edge research being carried out within Kingston University’s sport science facilities
According to sport analysis lecturer James Brouner: “Making an athlete more efficient can have major advantages in long duration steady-state exercise. With so many athletes consuming beetroot juice to achieve this gain but complaining of the palatability, dark chocolate could have a similar effect but with the additional benefit of tasting good too. “
The list of health benefits provided by Cacao is very long and exhaustive. Among the main benefits we can remember:
- The positive impact on cardio-vascular system.
- The effect on endorphin secretion.
- The protection from environmental pollutants, thanks to its high anti-oxidant properties.
- The ability to raise serotonin levels in the brain, acting as an anti-depressant agent.
- The effects on weight control.
- The aphrodisiac properties.