February brings Valentine’s Day and along with it, a spike in chocolate sales. February also has been designated Heart Month by the American Heart Association. It turns out there’s a good medical reason to associate chocolates and hearts: cocoa is beneficial to cardiac health.
(Cocoa, please note, is the solid portion of the bean that is separated from the cocoa butter. Health effects are not the same for pure cocoa as they are for chocolate, which adds back the cocoa butter along with sugar and milk.)
There are 500 identifiable compounds in cocoa, many of which are “bioactive”—biologically active and beneficial to humans. I have written in the past about the gut microbiome, the hundred-trillion gut microbes, mainly bacteria, which affect our health at a level as important as any organ in the body. I also wrote recently about the beauty of fermented foods, which offer beneficial microbes and their end products. It would appear that some of the benefits of cocoa on the heart and throughout the body are because cocoa is a fermented food as well! Cocoa-bean fermentation does not require any starter cultures or special conditions: it develops naturally immediately after bean harvesting. The term “cocobiota” is a new one, referring to the unity of bacteria and fungi that drives spontaneous postharvest fermentation of cocoa beans, and which may have health effects through the metabolites of bacterial and fungal origin.
There is no escape from the microbial world—nor do we want one. Valentine’s Day should include love for them as well! The microbes in cocoa may have a role in the following health benefits of consuming chocolate: lowering cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, preventing cancer, preventing coronary artery disease, and defending against “bad” bacteria and fungi.
In addition to the “cocobiota” and its benefits, the other large classes of compounds among the 500 are methylxanthines, like caffeine and theobromine, and polyphenols (flavenoids), both of which have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties so powerful they leave kale in the dust. (But still eat your kale.) The range of studies—on heart disease, diabetes, the immune system, and so on—includes brain studies that show benefit from cocoa consumption on mood and cognition. We are not as certain about the aphrodisiac aspects, but cocoa is undoubtedly good for your heart and your brain.
A great way to get the benefits of all those bioactives is to make homemade hot chocolate using mix of pure cocoa powder with warm unsweetened vanilla, almond, coconut, or soy milk. Add some cinnamon and a few dates, or a touch of date sugar.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Dr. Sally Fisher specializes in evidence-based integrative and nutritional medicine and is Sunrise Springs’ Medical Director. Her desire and intention is to have those she works with feel deeply that she is fully present, with warmth, humor, and knowledge, as she helps people to explore ways of enhancing their health and wellness.