Theobroma cacao, “food of the gods” in Greek. Delicious, no one will deny it… But also stimulant, antioxidant, antidepressant, euphoric! Cocoa beans, cocoa powder and dark chocolate from 70% reveal their nutritional richness and remarkable properties.
✓ Stimulates, boosts concentration and memory
✓ Antidepressant and promotes well-being
✓ Protects against cardiovascular disease
✓ Slimming help
What is cocoa?
Cocoa beans (Theobroma cacao) come from a tree called the cocoa tree, a tropical variety about 10 meters high, growing in the rainforests in the shade of the canopy, originally in the high Amazon basin. Belonging to the Sterculiaceae family, the cocoa tree produces creamy and pinkish flowers which, once in 1000, become pods.
These pods of about 20 cm contain the famous beans, wrapped in a white pulp, the mucilage. Today, cocoa, the basic ingredient of chocolate, is cultivated mainly in Africa, South America, Central America and Southeast Asia. Depending on their variety, the pods contain from 15 to 60 beans, and their colour at maturity ranges from yellow to orange. There are three of them, with different aromas and properties.
The Criollo, the rarest variety (5% of world production), gives the finest and most aromatic cocoa, mainly grown in South and Central America. Its cultivation is complex, slow and fragile. It is the variety from which the “grands crus” of chocolate are made.
The Forastero, the most widespread, corresponds to 80% of the world production, coming mainly from Africa, it gives bitter beans with acid notes and has a very high yield.
And the Trinitario, a hybrid of the first two varieties, grown in Mexico, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, which corresponds to 15% of world production.
The first traces of the use of cocoa can be found south of Ecuador and north of Peru, around 3500 BC under the Mayo-Chinchip civilization. It was later cultivated in Mesoamerica. Its name itself is derived from cacahuatl, which refers to the cocoa bean in Aztec, a great empire known for its consumption of cocoa for therapeutic purposes, especially as a spicy drink. “A bitter drink” according to the Spanish colonists, who soon spread it throughout Europe!
From cocoa to chocolate
Before obtaining the “merchant cocoa” and then the chocolate, different stages are observed: harvesting of the pods, shelling (extraction of the beans), fermentation in banana leaves, drying in the sun. The beans obtained are still considered raw cocoa (although for some purists, it does not even have to be fermented!).
Then comes the roasting between 120 and 140°C and then the crushing, which results in a cocoa paste. This paste is then pressed in hydraulic presses and filtered, in order to obtain on the one hand a liquid, the cocoa butter, intended for the manufacture of chocolate, and on the other hand a solid, the cake, which will give the cocoa powder.
Dark chocolate consists of cocoa paste, cocoa butter and sugar. It is recommended to consume at least 70% dark chocolate, i.e. it contains 70% cocoa and cocoa butter and 30% sugar. Milk and white chocolates are very poor from a nutritional point of view and much too sweet. France is the leading consumer of dark chocolate!
During roasting, the antioxidant content of the beans will decrease significantly. Dark chocolate and cocoa powder, even if they still have virtues, are less beneficial than raw beans. Their impact on our bodies varies according to their manufacturing processes, the origin and quality of the beans.
Consuming raw cocoa beans, rich in polyphenols, is the best way to benefit from its remarkable properties.
Tasted for thousands of years, the beans, beyond their aromatic and greedy aspect when processed, possess great nutritional qualities and multiple benefits.
Very rich in magnesium, which promotes good mood, in flavonoids, powerful antioxidants, they are also particularly stimulating thanks to their high content of theobromine, an equivalent to caffeine. The richer a cocoa is in polyphenols, the healthier it will be, but this content is not indicated when buying beans, chocolate or cocoa powder.
The many benefits attributed to cocoa, which is good news for us gourmets, are now proven by scientific studies. Its nutritional richness and antioxidant compounds, especially flavonoids, are at the origin of most of its properties. Currently, Harvard University is conducting a massive study on 18,000 people to explore all of its virtues, the main ones of which are as follows
- Vitamins: B1, B2, B3, B6, B9, E, K
- Proteins: 9 essential amino acids (including tryptophan)
- Theobromine, caffeine
- Minerals and trace elements: magnesium, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, iron, selenium, etc.
- Antioxidants: polyphenols (ferulic acid, flavonoids…)
The benefits of cocoa
Stimulant and euphoric, boosts concentration and memory.
Cocoa contains theobromine and caffeine, two stimulants that reduce fatigue and increase concentration and memory. Theobromine is milder than caffeine, and will act more over time. It will also cause the release of adrenaline, a euphoric molecule.
Moreover its flavonoids contribute to the improvement of the cerebral capacities and protect the brain. They are also responsible for the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow to the brain.
This Boston General Hospital study showed that a daily intake of flavonoids from cocoa improves the cognitive performance of subjects.
Source of antioxidants
Cocoa beans are one of the most antioxidant foods available. They contain large amounts of polyphenols, the pigments that colour plants, including flavonoids (especially catechin and epicatechin), which are excellent antioxidants. They are also rich in vitamin E, known for its antioxidant activity.
These antioxidants will help our body fight oxidative stress and cellular aging.
This study from The Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition (funded by chocolate manufacturer Hershey) showed that raw cocoa contains more antioxidants than any other fruit tested, including blueberries and acai berries.
Antidepressant and promotes well-being
Cocoa is a natural antidepressant and is good for morale in many ways. This information and the idea of eating chocolate is already making some people happy!
Beans contain serotonin, the hormone associated with well-being. And also tryptophan, an essential amino acid, the neurotransmitter that allows our body to create serotonin. Finally, its high magnesium content helps to reduce stress.
This systematic study has highlighted the capacity of cocoa to improve mood.
This study from the University of Tübingen in Germany shows that cocoa improves satisfaction and calmness.
This study, carried out by the University of Oulu in Finland on senior subjects, shows that the consumption of dark chocolate is correlated with an improvement in the general state of health and better well-being.
Protects against cardiovascular disease
Cocoa can reduce the risk of heart attack and protect us from cardiovascular disease thanks to flavonoids. Flavonoids increase the level of nitric oxide in the blood, which dilates arteries and blood vessels, improving circulation.
It also reduces bad cholesterol levels, which reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.
This synthesis from the University of Aberdeen in England, based on 9 studies, shows that the consumption of dark chocolate among healthy subjects is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
The study, conducted by the Harvard Medical School in Boston, showed that moderate consumption of dark chocolate reduces the risk of heart attack.
Reduces blood pressure
Cocoa is also an ally in reducing blood pressure. As we have seen, the flavonoids it contains promote the appearance of nitric oxide, which acts directly on the vessels and arteries, and reduces blood pressure.
This study from the University Hospital of Cologne shows that the consumption of dark chocolate improves blood pressure.
And yes, it may seem strange, but eating cocoa can help us slim down and control our weight, under certain conditions (raw cocoa or dark chocolate from 70%, eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet).
As it is particularly nutritious, cocoa gives us energy, reduces appetite and increases the feeling of fullness.
As we have seen, it participates in our general well-being, and this could be one of the causes of its ability to make us lose weight.
This study published in the International Archives of Medicine, conducted on subjects on a low-carb (low carbohydrate) diet, showed that those who consumed 42 g per day of 81% dark chocolate lost more weight and faster than those who did not.
Cocoa is the food with the highest content of flavonoids, and the latter help to prevent the appearance of cancers.
It would make it possible to limit the damage on the cells caused by toxic molecules, and limit the appearance and development of cancerous cells.
This study by the Institute of Food Science and Technology and Nutrition in Madrid reminds us that cocoa rich in polyphenols limits inflammation, tumour growth and metastases.
Cocoa promotes both concentration and good mood. What else?
Expert opinion of a dietician nutritionist
With more than 1800 thousand tonnes consumed in 2018, Europe is the world’s largest consumer of cocoa. In its raw form, in powder form or transformed into chocolates of all kinds, cocoa is present in every household.
Un very rich food: cocoa, especially in its raw form, contains many nutrients. Even consumed in small quantities (the equivalent of two squares of dark chocolate per day), magnesium intake is significant for stress regulation and the prevention of muscle cramps. However, be careful not to consume too much: cocoa is still composed largely of fat, so it is very “rich” in both nutrients and calories!
Cacao or chocolate: To appreciate the bitterness of cocoa, you have to take time to get used to it, whereas the desire for the sweet taste of chocolate comes much more easily to us. Chocolates, apart from dark chocolates containing more than 70% cocoa, are rarely interesting from a nutritional point of view, and should therefore be eaten occasionally.
Approvisionnement : Many cocoa farms around the world have been called to order for their unethical modes of production: deforestation, forced labour or even child labour, poor remuneration of small producers, etc. Our consumer choices can encourage better Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
How to consume cocoa?
Favour cocoa and organic chocolate
Of course we recommend consuming organic cocoa and chocolate made from it, in order to get the most out of its virtues. There are a large number of small organic cocoa producers around the world, often grouped in cooperatives. Favouring certified organic beans and chocolate allows you to consume a quality food, untreated, without pesticides and without GMOs.
Beyond these aspects of consumption, favouring organic products also contributes to a better preservation of the environment, all the more so as cocoa is grown in threatened areas prone to deforestation such as the Amazon or the tropical forests of West Africa. Not to mention that the use of pesticides is harmful to farmers.
Ideally, organic cocoa from agro-forestry plantations should be used, as this is an environmentally friendly method of cultivation that optimizes interactions within the same ecosystem. For example, some trees will provide shade or produce nitrogen, while others will host insect predators that could harm the plantation…
Finally, organic cocoa is finer and tastier, which is essential, especially when raw beans are consumed.
Some raw cocoa beans: ideally, choose the Criollo variety for the finest flavours and best benefits.
Raw cocoa beans may seem less appealing than a chocolate bar. However, as we have seen, eating them raw, that is to say not roasted and therefore processed to a minimum, is the best way to benefit from all their properties and nutrients. They can also be very aromatic, more so than some dark chocolates!
You can enjoy the beans as they are, by crunching them like nuts, possibly removing their thin layer of skin and taking care not to crumble them too much. You can also crush them and sprinkle them over yoghurts, granolas, smoothies, compotes…
Concerning the taste: fans of dark chocolate will not be put off by their bitterness, more or less strong depending on the variety. The criollo variety will be less bitter and very fruity, while the forastero and trinitario will have a more full-bodied and basic taste. Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
Cocoa powder and raw cocoa powder
Raw cocoa powder drink, a shot of energy and well-being
Ordinary cocoa powder is obtained from cake, the pressed cocoa paste made from roasted beans.
But there is also, and increasingly, raw cocoa powder, made from unroasted beans. It is much less sweet than industrial cocoa, more aromatic and more beneficial.
Read also l Cocoa & Maca elixir recipe: an energy drink rich in benefits to replace coffee.
It is prepared like regular cocoa powder, with cow or vegetable milk, or it can be added to homemade energy drinks.
Dark chocolate and raw cocoa chocolate
A few squares of 70% dark chocolate and more allow you to benefit from the excellent properties of cocoa, but be careful where it comes from.
Eating dark chocolate at 70% and more is another delicious way to enjoy the benefits of cocoa. Cocoa is made from roasted, crushed beans, transformed into paste and then into cocoa butter, to which sugar is added.
The good news is that some chocolatiers have started making dark chocolate with raw cocoa, using unroasted beans, which has more benefits than traditional dark chocolate. It is also more subtle and more powerful in aroma than regular dark chocolate.
As far as the dosage is concerned, it obviously excludes any form of excessive consumption. However, as we have seen, cocoa is very nutritious and reinforces the feeling of satiety, so the recommended doses are easy to follow, even though it is one of the most delicious super foods.
- Raw cocoa: 2 to 4 beans in the morning, up to 8 for a stimulating effect.
- Raw cocoa powder: 2 teaspoons per day
- Dark chocolate 70% and more: 2 to 3 squares per day
Contraindications and side effects
At recommended doses, there are no major contraindications and side effects of cocoa on our bodies, unlike ordinary chocolate, which can lead to overweight and gastrointestinal disorders.
On the other hand, it is particularly toxic for certain animals such as dogs, which cannot tolerate theobromine.
History and current culture
South American origins
We have seen that cocoa originated in a region from southern Ecuador to northern Peru, already cultivated or at least exploited from its natural biotopes more than 5000 years ago by the Mayo-Chinchipe culture. Ceramic bowls bearing cocoa residues have recently been discovered in this area, attesting to the ancestral consumption of the Indians of the upper Amazon basin.
There is also evidence of cocoa cultivation in Mesoamerica, especially under the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations, who used it as a currency of exchange. It was also a basic element of the daily diet, as well as a ritual and honorary one. The latter made a drink from roasted and crushed beans and spices, particularly bitter. They considered cocoa, cacahuatl, as a gift from the gods, hence its later classification Theobroma cacao, “food of the gods”.
Europe industrializes its production
In the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadors shared the Aztecs’ taste for cocoa and transformed their original drink by subtracting spices and adding sugar. From then on, cocoa was exported to Europe and distributed to the various courts and elites, in particular that of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. It was enriched with milk to sweeten it, and soon it was used in confectionery and pastries.
Cocoa production begins to be industrialized. At that time, Venezuela was the main producer of cocoa. Chocolate consumption is still expanding, and to satisfy the demand, South American forastero plants are imported to Africa. In Sao Tome and Principe, then in Nigeria and Ghana.
At the same time, the first chocholate bars were created, and the first cocoa powder to be diluted in milk by the Dutchman van Houten.
Today, the drifts of cocoa in West Africa
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the leader in cocoa became West Africa, with Côte d’Ivoire in particular, which today alone represents 40% of the world’s supply. Even if there are small producers aiming at a culture of quality, the majority of its production is disastrous for the environment and human rights, and feeds especially the big groups, manufacturers of industrial chocholate (Hershey’s, Mars,…).
A recent article in Le Monde highlighted the ravages of intensive cocoa cultivation, particularly among the world’s two leading producers, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. Cases of child labour, forced labour and deforestation are commonplace. We can never repeat it enough: we look first and foremost at where it comes from before buying it!