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Cocoa, Chocolate, and the Theobromine Effect

In 1983, with doctors unable to cure me, I studied the human body and diet. Since then, food as medicine has been a strong interest.

We all love chocolate. We’ve been told it’s good for us, which gives us reason to eat even more of it. The truth is that while chocolate makes us feel good, it isn’t good for us—the cocoa bean is. To explain, chocolate generally comprises sugar, milk, and cocoa. Sugar isn’t good for anyone, and milk is only okay for some. Cocoa, however, has some impressive qualities, including one feature of lowering the appetite. Find out more here about cocoa and the effects of the alkaloid theobromine. Perhaps you, too, will switch from drinking coffee and tea to hot cacao! 

The Cocoa tree (cacao) comes from the tropics in South America. Its botanical name is Theobroma Cacao and its seed is the cocoa bean—the bean that gives us cocoa powder and chocolate. It has been used for nearly 4000 years in total (mostly in South America) to prepare culinary, medicinal, and alcoholic products. In the Mesoamerican civilizations, it was also used as a currency.

Health Benefits of Cocoa

  • Cocoa contains flavonoids, or antioxidants. Antioxidants kill the free radicals that are responsible for rapid aging and disease. According to an Italian study, a small square (20 g) of dark (bittersweet) chocolate every three days is the ideal dose for cardiovascular benefits.
  • The beans are about 50% fat—palmitic, oleic, and stearic acids. They do not raise cholesterol, so it’s safe to eat cocoa fat. Be aware that this does not apply to chocolate which contains milk fats.
  • Polyphenols in the bean prevent blood from clotting and so are a contributing factor in preventing strokes and heart attacks.
  • It contains phenylethylamine (an alkaloid) which acts as a minor antidepressant as well as a stimulant. The bean (and therefore the chocolate as well) increases the serotonin in the brain, which decreases depression.
  • Other alkaloids include theobromine and caffeine.
  • This humble bean also contains a mass of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, E, pantothenic acid, zinc, copper, potassium, manganese, selenium, and magnesium. Vitamin K is particularly important as a protection against osteoporosis. Choline keeps your nervous system healthy and some of the minerals are vital in the manufacture of enzymes.
Consumption of cocoa has been shown to reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and raise levels of “good” cholesterol, potentially lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Consumption of cocoa has been shown to reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and raise levels of “good” cholesterol, potentially lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The internet abounds with studies on chocolate and the cocoa bean. However, when researchers study chocolate, they are including sugar and milk. Here are just a few examples:

The Theobromine Effect

Theobromine has been used in medicine to treat various conditions since 1916. While medicinal amounts are much larger than those found in either chocolate or cacao, there is still a carryover in these effects to both foodstuffs, depending on how much of the alkaloid there is within each item.

For instance, a pure cocoa bean powder contains 1,805 mg while a chocolate bar will contain 170 mg and a chocolate cookie will contain 183 mg.

Theobromine is used for treatment in many heart conditions. It thins the blood, and people who have high blood pressure are treated with this substance. Cough suppression is better with this product than codeine because it suppresses the vagus nerve, and some bright spark even took out a patent for use against cancer!

It’s the side effects that interest me, though.

I started searching for the ingredients in cocoa when I switched from coffee to cocoa and found that my hands were trembling and that I no longer struggled with my eating being out of control. I drink between two to three cups of Nomu pure baking cocoa a day. I didn’t want to use hot chocolate because they all contained sugars, dried milk solids, and processed chemicals of one sort or another. I was expecting it to be bitter but found not so much. Then I read that some manufacturers removed the flavonoids as they were bitter (which means – there go the antioxidants). Of course, that means the drink isn’t as good as it is when the ‘bitter stuff’ is left in!

It appears that this substance within the drink causes, amongst other things, loss of appetite! And, yes, it did cause the tremors and the jittery feeling of anxiety I was having. So, essentially, stopping my coffee consumption because it gave me the jitters wasn’t resolved by substituting for coffee. However, coffee did not make me lose my appetite whereas drinking cocoa did.

Of course, this is all anecdotal, and I appreciate that, but it is confirmed by various studies. This never happened with chocolate, though, and the difference is that, comparatively, chocolate has far less of this alkaloid than the bean powder does.

Chocolate Bean: the most complex food in the world?

Health: The Milk and Sugar Effect

Something in cocoa makes the lactose in milk easier to digest - possible because it effects enzyme activity. However, sugar has recently been shown to cause many health issues, so while it may all very well be okay to switch from the chocolate to the bean, it defeats the point to some extent. Bitter is an acquired taste. That means you may have to learn it. I was so desperate to get off coffee that I was prepared to accept that 'somewhat bitter' was going to have to become part of my new eating regime.

I have no regrets.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2016 Tessa Schlesinger


Chuck Bluestein from Morristown, AZ, USA on January 03, 2017:

Some say that it is the best food there is. You show one that is only cocoa. But the ones with refined sugar and milk are bad since that is 2 of the worst foods that there is. Cocoa and cocao come from the cocao tree. Cocaine comes from the coca tree.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on August 21, 2016:

Lot of useful and interesting information in this hub!

I like dark chocolate for its health benefits.

Thanks for sharing this informative hub! Nice video and pictures as well.

Tessa Schlesinger (author) on August 21, 2016:

Yup. I read that. Right now I have to lower my cholesterol and that is ome of the side effects as well!

peachy from Home Sweet Home on August 21, 2016:

you know why i love dark chocolates?

Because it can prevent blood clots!

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