(NaturalNews) Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, which has the species name Theobroma cacao. "Theobroma" literally means "drink of the gods."
This name was originally inspired by cocoa's history as a luxury beverage consumed by the elites of first Mesoamerica and then Europe. But in recent decades, research has increasingly uncovered another angle to this name: cocoa is one of the most potent superfoods known to humans. It has been linked to such a wide array of health benefits that it staggers the mind.
The cacao plant has been cultivated by humans for at least 4,000 years. Ancient Mesoamericans consumed it as a bitter beverage. After the drink was brought to Europe, the custom developed of adding more sweeteners to the drink. The modern chocolate bar was invented in the 1800s.
Approximately 380 different chemicals have been isolated from cocoa, many of them with powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. In fact, unprocessed cacao beans are so high in polyphenols and therefore so bitter that they are essentially inedible. Fermenting and processing the beans into cocoa removes anywhere from 10 to 100 percent of the polyphenols, depending on the process used. That's why, when consuming cocoa for health purposes, it is important to look for the darkest and least processed variety possible.
The antioxidant chemicals in cocoa are believed to be responsible for many of its remarkable health effects. In fact, cocoa has a higher antioxidant activity than either red wine or green tea!
Much of the research into cocoa's health benefits has focused on its effects on heart health. In fact, so many studies have shown that cocoa reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease – and may even prevent it – that researchers have moved on to examining the mechanisms by which this occurs. The list turns out to be a long one.
In addition to its heart-protective antioxidant content, cocoa also seems to lower blood pressure, prevent blood clotting, increase dilation of blood vessels, while decreasing body weight and central obesity. It also seems to chemically promote alertness and reduce stress, thereby removing other risk factors for heart attack and stroke. Cocoa also seems to fight the related condition of diabetes, reducing insulin resistance and increasing insulin sensitivity.
The other major area of cocoa health research has been in the food's ability to fight cancer. Studies suggest that cocoa polyphenols can inhibit the growth of cancer cells, prevent DNA damage that causes cancer, and even inactivate certain carcinogenic chemicals.
Researchers are also interested in the ability of antioxidant-rich cocoa to stave off degenerative brain conditions. They have found that chocolate increases blood flow to the brain, increases cognitive capacity, staves off age-related cognitive decline, and helps prevent Alzheimer's. It even shows promise for treatment of dementia and stroke.
The health benefits of cocoa don't stop there. Cocoa and cocoa polyphenols have also been found to: stimulate both the innate and adaptive immune systems; improve recovery from exercise; reduce symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome; prevent cataracts in diabetics; fight tooth decay; protect the skin; suppress cough; and improve vision in low-contrast situations (like inclement weather).
Cocoa flavanols have also shown prebiotic activity in the human gut, encouraging the development of beneficial microbes. Chocolate consumption may lower the risk of pre-eclampsia (a potentially deadly complication of pregnancy). Cocoa has even been found to increase the life span of fruit flies subjected to oxidative stress!
Research continues into the best way to harness the amazing health-promoting effects of cocoa polyphenols. But for now, it's hard to go wrong by including some extra cocoa powder or extra-dark, low sugar chocolate in your regular diet.
This Holiday season skittles is putting a little colour in your life
Splendido Restaurant continually ranks as one of Canada's top dining restaurants
The first in Canadian, Regional, Seasonal Cuisine with menu item