The human love affair with cocoa can be traced back to as early as the twentieth century B.C.E., where it was consumed as a beverage by the Mataya people on the Pacific coast of Chiapas. In fact, it’s likely that it was consumed as an alcoholic drink, given the residues and types of vessels found. By the time Europeans arrived in Central and South America in the 1500s it was widely consumed by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations and by 1600 it had reached Europe, where it took the Spanish court, and then the western world, by storm.
Chocolate - a Spanish derivation of the Nahuatl word chocolātl, the language of the Aztecs - is made from the beans of the theobrama cacao tree. The bitter seeds are fermented, dried, de-shelled and crushed. The resulting mass is liquified into a chocolate liquor that is separated into cocoa butter, essentially the fats, and a cocoa solid or powder. Today’s chocolate is a combination of these last two, plus some added sweeteners for taste.
Chocolate has been found to have a host of health benefits, but most of these are concentrated in the cocoa powder that we talked about earlier. In order to realize these benefits from your average chocolate bar, you need a dark chocolate with at least seventy percent cocoa solids. Keep in mind though, that processing cocoa can reduce many of the benefits below.
Cocoa is rich in polyphenols, which are also found in fruits and vegetables, as well as some teas and wine. Polyphenols have been linked to numerous health benefits, including reduced inflammation, better blood flow, lower blood pressure and improved cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Cocoa is also incredibly rich in flavanols, which are potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Some research has shown that these flavanols may lower blood pressure and improve blood vessel function, which may reduce your risk of heart attack. They may also improve brain function, through increased blood flow, and improve mood. Counterintuitively, cocoa may also help with type 2 diabetes and assist with weight loss.
Remember that processed chocolate still contains significant quantities of sugar and fats, so if you’re planning on adding it to your diet, keep an eye on portion sizes and as always, check with your health care provider before making any significant changes to your diet.