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Chocolate, a healthy allie?

Well, here we are, after foie gras, galette, Candlemas (And a few raclettes for those who went skiing), it's now chocolate month 🙄... Not easy to be credible with my patients with such a calendar 🤣. Anyway, the good news is that there is scientifically proven interest in the consumption of cocoa and chocolate. The key is to know which ones to consume, in what form, and in what quantity. After giving you an idea of the composition of cocoa (bean versus powder and chocolate bar), I will talk about its effects on health.



 


Focus on the composition of cocoa and chocolate



Composition in macronutrients: sugar, fat, and protein content


  • Protein content


Cocoa powder is quite rich in protein compared to cocoa beans and chocolate: on average 20 g/100g... almost like a piece of meat!...I don't know about you, but I clearly prefer cocoa powder. Although 100 g of cocoa powder is quite indigestible 😅.


  • Fat content


The fat composition varies greatly depending on the cocoa bean or powder... and even more so in different chocolates (dark, milk, white, pralines or chocolate bars...).

Cocoa beans contain on average 50 to 57% fat which forms cocoa butter. The powder is much lower in fat, while chocolate is often richer than the original bean. Among the main lipids present in cocoa beans are:


- Oleic acid (33%), a monounsaturated fatty acid also found in similar quantities in olive oil. Well known in the Mediterranean diet for its beneficial effects thanks to the hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein it contains. In addition to its structural role in membrane fluidity (essential for the fluidity of exchanges between the intra- and extra-cellular environments), this fatty acid also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, hypocholesterolemic, and anti-atherogenic effects (= fights lipid + cholesterol + other substances deposits that accumulate in your arteries and block them).


- Palmitic acid (25%), a saturated fatty acid that does not have a very good reputation because of its hypercholesterolemic effects if consumed in excess.


- Stearic acid (33%), another saturated fatty acid which, unlike palmitic, lauric, or myristic acids (which are the 3 saturated fatty acids that you should consume in reasonable amounts because of their deleterious effects on health), is not harmful. In fact, it is involved in the composition of membrane phospholipids and therefore also participates, like oleic acid, in membrane fluidity. Also, some authors conclude that it could even be anti-atherogenic.


  • Carbohydrate content


Regarding carbohydrates, it can be said that cocoa beans and powder are relatively low in carbohydrates. As for the chocolate bar... let's just say I'll let you be the judge: of course, the sugar content of 80% dark chocolate will be much lower than that of milk chocolate, white chocolate, or any other derivatives of the agri-food industry around chocolate...


  • Fiber content


Fiber is present in cocoa beans... unfortunately, once in the form of a chocolate bar, there's not much left! Nevertheless, cocoa powder seems to retain a fiber content similar to that of cocoa beans: 30 g/100g versus 10 g/100g in chocolate.


  • Composition in micronutrients


The minerals that can be considered in significant quantities in both chocolate and cocoa powder are magnesium, copper, potassium, and iron. Note that you shouldn't expect to fill your iron or magnesium deficiencies with chocolate: I remind you that the average daily consumption should be reasonable 😜, 25 to 40 g/day of dark chocolate > 70% or unsweetened cocoa powder and always of organic origin.


  • Composition in bioactive compounds


It is thanks to them that cocoa is considered a "healthy" food! Cocoa beans are rich in polyphenols, especially phenolic acids (gallic acid), stilbenes (resveratrol), and flavonoids (particularly catechins and anthocyanidins). 10% of the dry weight of cocoa beans is composed of polyphenols. It is actually the flavonoid content that gives chocolate its bitterness. However, I inform heavy chocolate eaters that the polyphenol content of your chocolate bar is almost divided by three compared to that of the cocoa bean. To make the right choice in chocolate, know that the total polyphenol content of dark chocolate is five times higher than that of milk chocolate and white chocolate. I'll let you look at the table that speaks for itself.



 

Fat content

Sugar content

Protein content

Fiber content

Average content in polyphenols for 100 g

Cacao powder

21 %

11,6 %

22 %

30 %

5624 mg

dark chocolate

33,4 %

18 %

10,4 %

12,8 %

1859 mg

Milk chocolate

30 %

60 %

8 %

3,4 %

854 mg

white chocolate

32 %

60 %

6 %

0,2 %

NA*

*White chocolate is made from cocoa butter and not cocoa powder. It therefore does not contain polyphenols.


Also, during one of my trainings, I had learned that cocoa from Madagascar was the richest in polyphenols. After researching the topic, I am less categorical. I think it depends a lot on how the trees have been cultivated. However, cocoa from Peru, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and Madagascar seems to have higher concentrations of polyphenols.


In addition to polyphenols, we also find bioactive compounds of the methylxanthine family that act as stimulants in the central nervous system. This includes caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline, which are also found in coffee and tea. Like polyphenols, the methylxanthine content is much higher in cocoa beans or powder than in chocolate.


10% of the dry weight of cocoa beans is composed of polyphenols.

 

From the cacao bean to the chocolate bar




From cocoa bean to chocolate bar, the processing process is long. And unfortunately, during the different stages of production, chocolate loses a large part of its polyphenols. Some authors talk about 10 times less compared to the cocoa bean. Explanation step by step...


Step 1: Fermentation. Cocoa bean fermentation process which unfortunately greatly reduces the anthocyanin content, sometimes becoming undetectable (As a reminder, anthocyanins are polyphenols very present in fruits and vegetables of red/blue/violet colors). The levels of epicatechin (flavanol) and procyanidins (flavonoid) are also greatly affected.


Step 2: Drying. This is the moment when cocoa beans are roasted in the sun to enrich their flavors. And bam! the epicatechin content is reduced by 50%. You might say "you can't have it all", but still, it's a high price to pay for a sunbathing session 😅.


Step 3: Roasting and the famous Maillard reaction. I already mentioned it in one of my previous posts. Chemical reaction between sugars and proteins that everyone loves because it gives flavor (by the formation of complex aromas), color, and texture to food. But it also generates a lot of toxins. Toxins that will be neutralized by antioxidant compounds (particularly flavonoids) contained in the cocoa bean, thus reducing the toxic content of the bean itself. But as a result, since the antioxidants will have been used, there will be less in your body...


Step 4: Crushing and grinding. The cocoa bean shell is removed and then ground into a paste (cocoa liquor). Well, there goes the fiber...


Then there is the step of separating this paste into cocoa powder and cocoa butter, mixing it with different ingredients such as sugar, milk..., conching (let's heat it up again to get a little Maillard reaction going), tempering (controlled cooling), and finally molding ready to be packaged. On these last steps, I did not find any information on the loss of polyphenols but, well, there was already not much left...


The conclusion of all this is that it is better to consume cocoa powder than chocolate. And if you still opt for a chocolate bar, make sure it is "enriched in polyphenols" meaning with almonds, spices like cinnamon or ginger (anti-inflammatory effects), or berries.






 

The health benefits from cacao



The health effects depend on the polyphenol content in the chocolate or cocoa powder consumed. This is why it is important to make a distinction between the two, since you will have understood that cocoa powder is much richer in polyphenols than dark chocolate, which is itself richer than milk chocolate or white chocolate.


What we also notice is that regular chocolate consumption would have more impact on health: it is better to consume it moderately every day than to eat a whole bar on Sunday evening in front of the TV 😜.


Finally, before boasting about the health benefits of cocoa, I think it is important to have a somewhat critical look at the various studies conducted that do not all show proven effects. Indeed, the choice of cocoa powder used for the studies is crucial: if it is an organic cocoa powder or the cocoa tree has had to fight against the weather, insects, and diseases to survive, the cocoa beans and therefore the powder derived from them will be much richer in polyphenols. Also, some studies evaluate the effects of chocolate over a short period of time whereas, as mentioned earlier, regular and long-term consumption yields better results.





  • Cacao and cardiovascular health


The effects on cardiovascular health are mainly related to the release of nitric oxide (= NO: vasodilator and therefore vector of blood pressure reduction), the quality of the endothelium (health of your blood vessels), and the reduction of platelet aggregation. This therefore reduces the risks of stroke and hypertension.

In terms of lipid profile, cocoa powder consumption seems to reduce the oxidation of LDL-chol and increase the level of HDL-chol. In simpler terms: limits the oxidation of "bad cholesterol" carrying cardiovascular diseases to the benefit of "good cholesterol". There is also a decrease in circulating triglycerides (= Free fatty acids involved in the formation of visceral fat, platelet aggregation... It's never good to have too much 😜).



  • Cacao and Central Nervous System (CNS)


The effects of cocoa powder on the CNS are less studied, but by analogy with the composition of polyphenols in other foods (grapes for resveratrol, berries for anthocyanins...), we can nevertheless draw some conclusions. Cocoa flavonoids (especially resveratrol and quercetin) would limit neuronal degeneration, particularly through anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. A great way to protect your brain against dementia, Alzheimer's disease, etc... isn't it? Also, it's no wonder that chocolate is the "comfort food" of many of us because it would have beneficial effects on stress, anxiety, and mood. The biochemical mechanisms behind this are more complex so I'll spare you that.


  • Cacao and gut health

Cocoa powder would also have effects on the protection of the intestinal mucosa and barrier. Logical considering their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. However, some polyphenols are metabolized by the microbiota. This implies that if the microbiota is not healthy, there is little chance that your polyphenols can exert their beneficial effects 😕. But the good news is that others also act as prebiotics! They will feed your good intestinal bacteria and thus potentially rebalance your microbiota (phew!). A study conducted on healthy subjects showed an increase in Lactobacillus spp. and Bifidobacterium spp thanks to the consumption of a beverage high in cocoa flavanols for 4 weeks.


  • Cacao and overweight/obesity

Finally, one last thing: cocoa powder has beneficial effects on obesity. Another example that dismantles slimming diets where chocolate is demonized! How is this possible, you might ask? Flavonoids have effects on satiety, they reduce fat storage and insulin resistance (via the stimulation of adiponectin and ghrelin for those who are a little more trained in biochemistry).




 

Conclusion


So what do we remember:


• It is better to consume a hot chocolate made from organic cocoa powder rather than the industrial chocolate bunny poor in polyphenols but rich in sugar.


• Choose a chocolate bar that is as rich as possible in polyphenols, namely dark chocolate > 70% with berries, nuts, or even better with antioxidant spices like cinnamon or ginger, without added sugar and of organic origin (indeed, this reduces the choice 🤣).


• Be reasonable without depriving yourself: 25 to 40 grams of cocoa powder/chocolate per day maximum 🙂🙃.


Last little tip: snack time, especially between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., is a good time to eat chocolate or cocoa powder. A sweet snack rich in tryptophan helps to secrete serotonin, a neurotransmitter precursor of melatonin 😴. For example, a whole organic yogurt with cocoa powder and a few pieces of fruit or a chocolate-flavored soy milk with a few cashew nuts are snacks that combine the useful with the pleasant 👌.







 

Sources:


Prebiotic evaluation of cocoa-derived flavanols in healthy humans by using a randomized, controlled, double-blind, crossover intervention study. Tzounis X, Rodriguez-Mateos A, Vulevic J, Gibson GR, Kwik-Uribe C, Spencer JP. Am J Clin Nutr (2011) 93(1):62–72. 10.3945/ajcn.110.000075


Dark chocolate: An overview of its biological activity, processing, and fortification approaches. Sharmistha Samanta, Tanmay Sarkar,b, Runu Chakraborty, Maksim Rebezov, Mohammad Ali Shariati, Muthu Thiruvengadam, and Kannan R.R. Rengasamyg.


From cocoa to chocolate: the impact of processing on in vitro antioxidant activity and the effects of chocolate on antioxidant markers in vivo. Mattia C.D.D., Sacchetti G., Mastrocola D., Serafini M. Front. Immunol. 2017;8(SEP):1–7.


Survey of Commercially Available Chocolate- and Cocoa-Containing Products in the United States. 2. Comparison of Flavan-3-ol Content with Nonfat Cocoa Solids, Total Polyphenols, and Percent Cacao. Kenneth B. Miller, W. Jeffrey Hurst, Davide Stuart. J Agricultural and Food Chemistry, vol. 57,‎ 2009, p. 9169-9180.


Prebiotic evaluation of cocoa-derived flavanols in healthy humans by using a randomized, controlled, double-blind, crossover intervention study. Tzounis X, Rodriguez-Mateos A, Vulevic J, Gibson GR, Kwik-Uribe C, Spencer JP. Am J Clin Nutr (2011) 93(1):62–72.


The effect of cocoa-rich products on depression, anxiety, and mood: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Laura Fusar-Poli, Alberto Gabbiadini, Alessia Ciancio, Lucia Vozza, Maria Salvina Signorelli, Eugenio Aguglia. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2022;62(28):7905-7916.





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