Health Promoting Effects of Cocoa


Chocolate is one of the most popular tasty treats in the world. Native to South America, cocoa was a vitally important commodity in Mesoamerica, so much so it was being used as currency prior to the Spanish conquest [1].

Theobroma CacaoAfter its arrival in Europe, where it was aptly named Theobroma Cacao, or “food of the gods” cocoa and chocolate spread rapidly as a popular beverage and purported aphrodisiac.

Aside from its obviously pleasant taste cocoa has a number of well researched health benefits which make it more than just a guilty indulgence.

What Are The Benefits Of Cocoa?

Flavanoid rich foods, like chocolate are associated with better cognitive abilities, positive changes in blood pressure and mood. In addition, animal studies have shown cocoa to be neuroprotective [2][3][4]. Cocoa is fairly nutrient dense with a whopping 220mg magnesium per 100g of dark chocolate and 10% fiber content [5].

It also tastes delicious.

What Does Cocoa Contain?

Chocolate has a number of naturally occurring compounds which are responsible for its stimulating, cognitive enhancing and health promoting effects. These can largely be split into two groups, the stimulants and the polyphenols.


Chocolate is rich in polyphenols, flavanoids and flavanols [6][7] .Specifically being in rich in catechin and epicatechin which contribute to cocoa’s ability to promote blood flow, lower blood pressure and counter cardiovascular disease risk [8][9][10].


Cocoa is rich in theobromine (1-3%), low amounts of caffeine (around 0.3%) and very low amounts of phenylethlamine (PEA around 8mcg/gram) [11]. The majority of cocoa’s “feel good” and stimulating effects will stem from its rich theobromine content.

caffeine theobromineTheobromine is a xanthine alkaloid that is structurally similar to caffeine. Like caffeine, theobromine is an adenosine agonist, non-selective phosphodiesterase inhibitor and cAMP raiser [12][13][14]. Unlike caffeine, theobromine is a vasodilatory substance which lowers blood pressure, has a longer half life, appears to positively impact mood and also increases heart rate(2). Theobromine also isn’t associated with as many negative symptoms of caffeine use, such as light headedness.

How To Choose A Suitable Cocoa Product

Cocoa starts its life as a bean on Theobroma Cacao, the cocoa tree. Pods containing beans are picked and subsequently processed into many derivatives, each of which has a varying level of goodness.

Cocoa / Cacao Beans and Nibs

Cocoa Beans and NibsThe least processed way to get the goodness. Cacao beans have literally been plucked from the tree, removed from their pod and left to dry in the sun. The beans are then cracked and de-shelled which produces cocoa nibs.

Cocoa Beans and Nibs Goodness Content: High

Cocoa Powder and Cocoa Butter

Cocoa Powder and Cocoa Butter

Cocoa nibs are then milled, heated and pressed to form chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor is roughly 50/50 cocoa mass and cocoa butter, which are then separated.

It’s important to note that cocoa butter has no substantial quantities of caffeine, theobromine or polyphenols. Most, if not all of the goodness of cocoa is in the mass that is produced.

Cocoa Mass/Powder Goodness Content: Ultra High

Cocoa Butter Alkaloid Goodness Content: Little-none

Chocolate – Dark, Milk and White

Chocolate – Dark, Milk and WhiteChocolate is the finished product of cocoa production that has mixed ratios of cocoa mass to butter with milk and sugar added. Dark chocolate has the most cocoa mass, followed by milk chocolate.

White chocolate has no cocoa mass and is simply a mix of butter, milk and sugar. There’s no benefit at all to consuming white chocolate. Milk chocolate’s low cocoa and relative high sugar content also makes it a poor choice. Simply put: the darker the better. Aim for 70% cocoa solids or more.

Dark Chocolate 60-90% Goodness Content: Medium-High

Milk Chocolate and White Chocolate Goodness Content: Low-zero

Conclusion: Enjoy In Moderation

Low sugar, high cocoa chocolate can be enjoyed in moderation. 20-40g of dark chocolate is an excellent dietary addition and would confer the health benefits that research has uncovered.

As a moderately stimulating food, try to consume your chocolate earlier in the day to ensure your sleep is in no way compromised.

This guest post was written by Justin Garner. Justin co-runs Smarter Nootropics, a website that compiles the research on nootropics and cognitive enhancement. Their complete guide to nootropics is of particular use for newcomers to the game.


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