The reputation of chocolate is quickly rising from ‘junk food’ to ‘health food’. It’s name (Theobroma) doesn’t mean ‘food of the gods’ for nothing.  Chocolate is made from cocoa powder, cocoa butter and sugar. Cocoa butter and cocoa are both obtained from roasted cocoa beans that have been ground into a paste;  although cocoa powder is still 10-12% fat. Dark chocolate is usually considered to be 35% or higher in cocoa solids or a combined total of cocoa powder and cocoa butter of 70%.  Milk chocolate is higher in fat and lower in cocoa compared to dark chocolate and contains a total of 50% cocoa solids and butter combined.

Cocoa is an ancient food and was used by the Mayans for ceremonies as well as medicine.  They drank it as a bitter, frothy drink flavored with vanilla, chili pepper and annatto. After becoming popular in Europe in the 16th century it was transformed into the sweet drink more typical of what we are familiar with now. Historical uses of cocoa include for fatigue, diarrhea and other bowel dysfunctions, burns, cuts and skin irritations, to increase fertility and to ease labor. Theobromine found in cocoa acts similar to caffeine to decrease fatigue. This same compound may also be useful to reduce coughing (theobromine can relax muscles in the bronchioles and affect the vagus nerve).

Chocolate always makes me feel better emotionally. Chocolate causes release of serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter responsible for improving mood. It has also been suggested that cocoa can stimulate cannabinoid receptors in the brain to increase euphoria!

Cocoa is high in flavonoids which act as antioxidants. These flavonoids include epicatechin and catechin which are also found in green tea so many benefits of cocoa are similar to green tea. These flavonoids cause dilation of blood vessels which increase blood flow to benefit both the cardiovascular system and the brain and memory. Cocoa is high in nutrient value too providing magnesium, iron, chromium, vitamin C, and zinc.

A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition, found that people who drank a chocolate product high in flavonoids daily were protected from skin damage after exposure to UV light and had an overall improvement in appearance and hydration of their skin.  The amount of cocoa flavonoids consumed by the test volunteers is equivalent to 100 g (just over 3 ounces) of dark chocolate daily.

Flavonoids can protect the skin in two ways; they absorb UV light that can damage the skin and they act as antioxidants to scavenge oxidants formed by UV light. Some flavonoids have also been found to inhibit inflammatory processes involved in sun damaged skin.

Animal studies have shown that the topical use of cocoa can reduce sun damage such as wrinkling and alterations in skin structure. Human topical studies have not yet been done. However, it is reasonable to think that topical use of cocoa is also beneficial in humans.

The other product of cocoa beans, cocoa butter, acts as an emollient to soften the skin. It is high in antioxidants giving it a longer shelf life than many oils. You can use cocoa butter to harden balms or to thicken lotions and creams. It can also be used with other oils in soapmaking.

All these benefits of eating cocoa or chocolate must be balanced with its high calorie content that could contribute to obesity. Experimenting with less sugary cocoa drinks can be fun. I’ve seen cocoa mixed with chamomile in a tea like drink with a little honey. Add hot pepper if you dare. The other danger of drinking too much cocoa is that it can contain lead. Apparently lead binds to the cocoa shells and can contaminate the cocoa during processing.

Beware of some chocolate manufacturers who have substituted cocoa butter in their chocolates with less expensive hydrogenated vegetable oils.  The FDA has stated that chocolate must contain cocoa fat so companies have gotten around this by calling it ‘chocolate flavored’.

Here are some ways to use cocoa.

Face Mask

2 T Cocoa powder

1 T Clay

1 T honey

1 T or less Hydrosol to moisten

Mix together and apply to face. Leave on for 10 minutes and wipe off with a wet washcloth. Your skin will be moisturized and nourished.

Cocoa/Chamomile Tea

Pour 2 cups boiling water over:

1 teaspoon chamomile tea

1 teaspoon cocoa powder

1 cinnamon stick

Add 1 teaspoon of honey. Let steep for 5 minutes or more to taste. You can remove the chamomile and let the cocoa powder steep longer if you like.