Cocoa - The Food of the Gods
By Christopher Cumo

Chocolate is more than just a tasty treat. With an enticing – even addicting – flavor, cocoa is gifted to us from the beans of the cacao tree, which is indigenous to Central and South America. Over 1,500 years ago, the Mayans cultivated and worshipped this tree and thus dubbed it “cacao” meaning “god food.” Often enjoyed as the quintessential winter beverage, cocoa contains fascinating health properties that have been recognized ever since. The Aztecs, who populated areas of Central America in the 13th through 16th centuries, believed that cocoa gave one wisdom and protection against illness. Studies today demonstrate that it does in fact contain disease-fighting properties, as well as essential nutrients.

Cocoa, derived from the roasted and ground beans from the cacao tree, contains flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. Antioxidants fight the growth of tumors, and they protect against heart disease. A cup of cocoa has twice the antioxidants of red wine and thrice the amount contained in green tea, according to Chang Lee, PhD, chairman of the department of food sciences and technology at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station. The indigenous Kuna people of Panama drink as many as 40 cups of cocoa per week, fortifying them against certain diseases. For example, less than 10 percent of the Kuna experience strokes, heart attacks, cancer or diabetes, all of which afflict Americans at alarming rates. The Kuna also do not suffer from high blood pressure – in fact, cocoa lowers blood pressure – and the Kuna do not get dementia. Researchers attribute the latter to the increased blood (and oxygen) supply to the brain that cocoa encourages. Thanks to cocoa's effect on the brain, it also is credited with increases in mental sharpness, concentration and clarity of thought.

Epicatechin, a substance found in cocoa, is the darling of medical research. Norman Hollenberg, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, considers epicatechin to be as important to optimal health as vitamins. Hollenberg credits the substance with the low incidence of disease amongst the Kuna people of Panama. These claims are more than hype. In addition to antioxidants and epicatechin, cocoa contains stearic acid, which protects against blood clots.

Moreover cocoa is loaded with nutrients. A cup of cocoa contains protein, vitamins B1, B2 and B6, niacin, folic acid, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. According to nutritionist Christine Foskett, DC, cocoa also stimulates the release of serotonin in the brain, giving one a feeling of wellbeing. Cocoa also is rich in phytochemicals, which scientists are just beginning to study to determine their health benefits.

For the greatest benefit, dietician Adrian Porter, RD, LD, recommends that health-conscious consumers buy pure cocoa powder – the closer the powder to its natural state, the better. Consumers ought to be wary of the many commercial brands that screen out epicatechin because of its bitterness. Premium grade cocoa is more likely to contain epicatechin, and the extra cost is an investment in good health. Once considered the food of gods, cocoa is now the beverage of the masses. For a boost to your health and happiness, enjoy an occasional hot cup of cocoa this winter.

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