Cocoa beans, the seed of the cocoa tree, are best-known for being the central ingredient in the world’s most popular indulgence food, chocolate. For centuries, cocoa has been acknowledged not only for its superior taste, but also for its potential health effects. In fact, the Incas declared it the drink of gods, and gave it the scientific name, Theobroma cacao, from the Greek words theo (god) and broma (drink). Recently, cocoa has been shown to possess real heart health promoting and anticancer compounds known as polyphenols, which are especially abundant in darker chocolates.

Anticancer Properties

Cocoa has been demonstrated to counteract oxidative stress and to have a potential capacity to interact with multiple carcinogenic pathways involved in inflammation, spread and death of initiated and malignant cells (Martín et al. 2016). Cocoa contains antioxidant compounds known as polyphenols. Cell-damaging free radicals are produced via normal cellular metabolism and contain oxygen molecules that induce damage not only to the outer cell membrane but also to the DNA itself. Cancer can result from DNA damage from these free-radicals. Polyphenols constitute a large class of antioxidant compounds with cocoa being abundant specifically in catechins, epicatechin, gallic acid, and procyanidins.

Plants have been used for medicine for thousands of years and remain relevant as natural sources of active compounds for treating human diseases, especially cancer (Cragg et al. 1997; Cragg & Newman 2013). Plant products have played an important role among the many recent advances in cancer chemotherapy, having contributed considerably to the approximately 60 available cancer chemotherapeutic drugs.

Cocoa powder and dark chocolate contain the highest amounts of antioxidants compared to milk chocolate which contains approximately one-half the amount of dark chocolate. Laboratory studies have shown that cocoa polyphenols inhibit the damaging effects of the cell poisons, peroxynitrate and superoxide radical–chemicals formed by immune cells in response to normal ongoing cell damage within the body. In addition, cocoa also contains 2-3% theobromine, which possesses antioxidant activity.

While there are more studies with regards to prevention of specific cancers by cocoa needed, laboratory and epidemiologic studies show that polyphenol intake from fruits and vegetables can inhibit cancer cell growth in the laboratory, in animals, and humans. More research will allow us to know how much cocoa may be required to prevent certain cancers. Nonetheless, cocoa is another way to increase the total antioxidant load in your diet today.

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