by Brittany Scanniello, RD
Fall in love with cacao this Valentine’s Day! If you are anything like us, learning there are health benefits to indulging in dark chocolate means we jump at the chance to add it to our healthy snacking routing.
Cacao powder is what adds the rich, decadent, deep chocolate flavor to any dessert or beverage. At Supernola, we use high quality ethically sourced chocolate made from organic fermented - yes that's right, fermented! - cacao. Cacao powder is made by grinding down the cacao beans that have been 'fermented' oftentimes in the natural sun. This fermentation process turns an extremely bitter seed (cacao) into the magical flavor of chocolate we so love!
Now that we know what it is, let’s dive into what this superfood provides. Cacao is rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols are antioxidants that are naturally found in foods such as vegetables, fruits, wine, tea and yes, chocolate! One particular class of polyphenols found in the cacao bean include flavonoids. Flavonoids are known to have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.(1)
So, what does this mean and how can this whole food ingredient support your health?
Are you feeling nice and relaxed even after your first bite of your Supernola Dark Chocolate Nut Crunch superfood clusters? Researchers in Brazil found that cacao has been found not only to reduce stress, but also improve one’s feeling of calmness and contentment.(2) We don’t know about you, but we always seem to feel better after some mindful snacking on dark chocolate! These positive effects on mood are due to, yes… you guessed it…. flavanols! But, that is not the only culprit to give us that sense of serenity after diving into a wholesome dark chocolate snack. We can also give thanks to an amino acid, tryptophan.
Let us take that a step further. Amino acids are found in many foods and supplements. They are the ‘building blocks’ per-say to make proteins. Cacao contains the amino acid, Tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning that it cannot be produced by the body and must be consumed via food or supplement. In our body, Tryptophan, is used to make melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin helps us regulate our sleep-wake cycle, while serotonin affects many organs, including our brain and gut. In the brain, serotonin’s influence on sleep, cognition and mood are like none-other! Some call this our “feel good” hormone.(3) Serotonin is considered to be a natural mood stabilizer and is thought to regulate anxiety and happiness. Low levels of the chemical have been associated with depression.(4)
Interestingly, for all the pregnant mamas out there, one study looked at the consumption of chocolate and stress levels in pregnant women. The study found that those women who consumed dark chocolate more frequently were found to have lower stress levels and improved mood in babies.(5) Just one more reason to give into that craving!
Let us take a pause here and answer the burning question many people ask… is chocolate really an aphrodisiac? Here are the facts. As mentioned above, chocolate contains Tryptophan which ultimately is converted into serotonin. Serotonin being the ‘mood booster’ that it is, is considered to be the real reason why chocolate can get you in the mood … no wonder chocolate and Valentine’s Day are so closely intertwined, eh?!
Blood Pressure Support
Cacao may also be able to lower blood pressure. A study published in 2017 looked at the effect of blood pressure after the consumption of flavanol-rich cacao. What these researchers found was that the flavanols in cacao may reduce high blood pressure by improving the Nitric Oxide levels in your blood, essentially enhancing the function of your blood vessels by relaxing and dilating them.(6) A systematic review analyzed 35 different experiments where patients were provided anywhere from 0.05 – 3.7 ounces of cacao products and found that cacao produced a small, but significant reduction in blood pressure, of 2 mmHg. What was extremely fascinating is that those with high blood pressure to begin with, seemed to fare even better than those that did not have high blood pressure to start.
We have discussed how polyphenols help with nitric oxide production and improve blood flow; researchers are now starting to extrapolate these findings and assess blood flow to the brain. This is an area with increasing research. Flavanols are known to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier and are involved in many important brain functions such as neuron production. A study out of Boston looked at blood flow to the brain in older adults after given high-flavanol cacao. What they found was that blood flow increased by 8% after week one and by 10% after week two.(7) Now, as mentioned earlier, there is more research that needs to be done in this area. But, what has been found, has shed light on the possibility that cacao may play a positive role in brain health and possible positive effects on neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
It is important to note here, with processing, the flavanol content in cacao can go down significantly. It is important to choose healthy nutrient-dense snacks like Supernola that contain 70% or greater cacao or dark chocolate content. These beneficial blood pressure effects are not likely going to be seen from your average chocolate bar.
Yes, we said it! Cacao has been found to have some anti-diabetic effects. This goes back to our earlier statement, not all chocolate is created equal. Overconsumption in anything is not good for overall health, however, in moderation, one can reap the benefits of what this superfood has to offer!
Specific to blood sugar management, some studies have shown that a higher intake of flavanols, can result in a lower type 2 diabetes risk. It is thought that the flavanol-rich cacao may improve insulin sensitivity.(8) When our body’s cells are more responsive to insulin, this allows our cells to use our blood glucose more effectively, therefore, reducing overall blood sugar. Some researchers out of Brigham Young University are continuing to look at this finding and believe that certain compounds found in cacao could potentially be leveraged as a treatment for pre- and type 2 diabetic patients.(9) This does not mean to go and indulge yourself in every chocolate bar you see, but it does show the importance of choosing high quality nutrient-dense snacks without refined sugar to support mindful snacking.
Cacao, even in the form of chocolate, may help you control your weight. (Reminder: not all chocolate is created equally so be sure to choose organic snacks without refined sugar and made from whole food ingredients!). With a balanced diet, some studies have found that eating cacao and cacao-rich products may be helpful in achieving weight loss or maintaining weight. It is thought that cacao reduces appetite by inducing satiety, the feeling of fullness. Some studies are even hypothesizing that cacao influences increased fat oxidation.(10) Fat oxidation is the actual process of how our body breaks down fats during the digestion and metabolic process. Again, more research needs to be done in this area, however, cacao may aid in weight management in many ways!
Cacao contains many compounds that are antibacterial, anti-enzymatic and immune stimulating in their base state. It is thought that these properties may contribute to overall oral health and skin support. Against popular belief, you can’t necessarily blame the cacao for that pesky zit you found after eating some chocolate. In fact, the polyphenols found in cacao are actually known to provide significant benefit to your skin. A study out of Germany focused on long-term ingestion of high-flavanol cacao and its effects on skin conditions in women. What they found was that the group consuming the high flavanol cacao led to increased blood flow, increased skin density and increased skin hydration when compared to the low flavanol cacao group.(11) We say “yes please” to all the skin support!
The Bottom Line
Health benefits of cacao include improved blood flow, decreased inflammation, improved heart and brain health, blood sugar, weight control and healthy skin.
The exact amount of cacao to be consumed to achieve the health benefits outlined above is unknown. Researchers are continuing to work on finding that data; however, it is important to choose cacao that is less processed with high flavanol content. Aiming for 70% or more cacao is always a good bet.
Remember, all chocolate is not created equal. Many of the chocolate bars and products out there today contain significant amounts of sugar and fats. Next time you are at the store and want to revamp your chocolate routine, consider small portion sizes made with high-quality whole food ingredients with no refined sugar, and combine it with a healthy, balanced diet.
You can include this nutrient-dense superfood in a variety of ways. Here are some of our favorites:
- Dark Chocolate Nut Crunch Supernola: All the satisfying richness of decadent dark chocolate without any guilt or refined sugar! This is a treat you can feel good about giving the whole family: crunchy clusters of bananas and nuts covered in smooth, delicious dark chocolate. We use the highest quality heirloom chocolate sweetened with coconut sugar that’s sustainably and ethically sourced.
- Add to your favorite smoothie: Our “go-to” includes bananas, nut butter, greens and coconut milk for some extra creaminess.
- Sprinkle on top of fruit: Divine on favorites like strawberries and bananas.
- Hot Cacao: Heat with your preferred dairy or nondairy milk for a decadent hot chocolate treat.
- Cocoa, Blood Pressure, and Vascular Function
- Cocoa and Human Health: From Head to Foot--A Review
- Conversion L-tryptophan to melatonin in the gastrointestinal tract: the new high performance liquid chromatography method enabling simultaneous determination of six metabolites of L-tryptophan by native fluorescence and UV-VIS detection
- What has serotonin to do with depression?
- Sweet babies: chocolate consumption during pregnancy and infant temperament at six months
- Effect of cocoa on blood pressure
- Cerebral blood flow response to flavanol-rich cocoa in healthy elderly humans
- Effects of Cocoa Antioxidants in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus
- Cocoa Compound Found to Have Positive Effect on Diabetes Management
- Molecular mechanisms underlying the potential antiobesity-related diseases effect of cocoa polyphenol
- Long-term ingestion of high flavanol cocoa provides photoprotection against UV-induced erythema and improves skin condition in women