Breaking into Chocolate / Cacao

Chocolate, an almost universally loved food. If you are quite the chocolate lover and connoisseur, you might have noticed that certain chocolates have different effects on you. Darker, higher quality chocolate may boost your mood while a bar of milk chocolate might just taste good. Maybe you've heard people say chocolate is healthy and full of antioxidants and you know it comes from a plant, so it's basically a fruit, right? Sounds like a good enough reason to dig in, after all who doesn't love a piece or two (or five) as a treat or mid day snack. It's delicious, it makes you feel good, and if you've ever indulged too late at night you might have noticed it also sometimes can help boost your energy and (unfortunately) keeps you awake. But why is this?  If you have ever wondered how chocolate boosts your mood, keeps you energized, and why you crave it, and if you want to finally understand what all this buzz about antioxidants is, read on. 


One compound that may contribute to these feelings are flavanols, a bioactive compound found in certain plant-based foods. Flavanols in cocoa “have been shown to help reduce blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, prevent blood clots, and fight cell damage.” Research shows that consumption of flavanols from cocoa can result in better attention, thinking, and memory, and improve insulin resistance. In lab studies, flavanols have been observed to facilitate cell connections in the brain and protect brain cells from inflammation and toxic compounds.  

Unfortunately, flavanols are generally destroyed in the production of many chocolates (especially milk chocolates) and in the making of Dutch processed cocoa powder. In the Dutch method, cocoa powder is washed with a potassium carbonate solution to reduce the acidity in the cocoa powder to a pH of 7. This more neutral powder has a less bitter more mellow flavor, and because the powder is no longer as acidic, it no longer reacts with alkaline compounds like baking soda so in recipes using Dutch cocoa, you often leaven by using baking powder which has a neutral pH. (cite). This powder loses the flavanols in the processing, and so to ensure your maximizing flavanol content you should opt for a high quality dark chocolate or non-Dutch processed cocoa powder.

These high quality products, such as Republica Del Cacao, Toak Chocolate, Kallari and can range from 100mg to 2,000mg of flavanols per 3 oz of chocolate depending on the processing method of the manufacturer. If you do buy cocoa powder to make chocolate treats and you opt for a higher flavanol lesser processed powder, it might taste more bitter (due to the lack of processing and the more acidic pH). But adding in a little coconut sugar or monk fruit extract, as we do in our Mikuna Chocho Superfood Protein Cacao, to offset the bitter flavor will ensure that your brownies and cakes taste just as good, if not better. (cite). 


Polyphenols are another compound found in cocoa that contributes to the good reputation (and good feelings). Polyphenols are antioxidants, or substances that help prevent or reduce cell damage caused by unstable molecules that are produced in the body due to environmental factors or other factors such as the inhalation of smoke or pollution (cite). 

The polyphenols in cocoa break down into three sub groups: catechins, anthocyanins, and proanthocyanidins -- Don't worry, they are hard to read and harder to pronounce and luckily they work their magic regardless. So what exactly do polyphenols in cocoa do to us? Evidence shows that consumption of cocoa polyphenols may reduce the risk of cardiovascular issues, help lower blood pressure, have anti-inflammatory properties, and help metabolic systems. (cite). Other research has shown that polyphenols in cocoa and quality dark chocolate may help your microbiome by modulating intestinal microbiota leading to anti-inflammatory effects. (cite)


Now, if you’ve ever eaten chocolate late at night and then laid awake wondering why this is happening, you can blame theobromine. Theobromine, like polyphenols and flavonols, is more prevalent in higher quality cocoa and dark chocolate, and is also found in yerba mate, the caffeinated tea. It has a stimulant effect, and can boost energy. Chocolate and cacao do also contain caffeine, but in a lesser quantity than theobromine, which helps offset the jitters and anxiety side effects of pure caffeine. (cite) . It has also been shown to lower blood pressure and to possibly have anti-tumor properties (cite).The stimulating effects of theobromine may make you feel a very mild high (like that of using cannabis) producing a relaxing, stress reducing, and soothing effect. (cite)


Beyond all these health benefits chocolate probably just makes you feel, well, good. That is in part because chocolate contains tryptophan and tyrosine. Tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin, meaning that you need it to produce serotonin. Research has shown that a diet low in tryptophans may be linked to less serotonin production. By consuming chocolate high in tryptophan, you are helping your body produce serotonin and making yourself happier. Similarly, tyrosine is the precursor for dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps the brain understand reward and pleasure. When dopamine levels go up, it basically communicates that you should have more of what caused the increase. The tyrosine in cocoa activates the reward center in the brain and helps you produce and increase levels of dopamine, making you feel good and causing you to want more. (cite) 

So, next time you're at the market trying to decide between the numerous brands of chocolate, know that your choice may have larger impacts on you than you might think. In Mikuna Chocho Superfood Protein, we use high quality Ecuadorian non dutch processed cacao, so flavanol, polyphenol, theobromine, tryptophan and tyrosine content can be maximized. In consuming quality dark chocolate, you are not only satiating your sweet tooth, but you are possibly calming yourself, protecting your heart, reducing oxidative stress, and helping your body produce serotonin and dopamine. Just make sure you don't eat that quality dark chocolate or non-dutch processed cocoa right before bed, or the theobromine and caffeine might just keep you awake.  


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