Cocoa is thought to have first been used by the Maya civilization of Central America.
It was introduced to Europe by Spanish conquerors in the 16th century and quickly became popular as a health-promoting medicine.
Cocoa powder is made by crushing cocoa beans and removing the fat or cocoa butter.
Today, cocoa is most famous for its role in chocolate production. However, modern research has revealed that it does indeed contain important compounds that can benefit your health.
Here are 11 health and nutrition benefits of cocoa powder.
Polyphenols are naturally occurring antioxidants found in foods like fruits, vegetables, tea, chocolate and wine.
Cocoa is one of the richest sources of polyphenols. It’s especially abundant in flavanols, which have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
However, processing and heating cocoa can cause it to lose its beneficial properties. It’s also often treated with alkaline to reduce bitterness, which results in a 60% decrease in flavanol content (1).
So while cocoa is a great source of polyphenols, not all products containing cocoa will provide the same benefits.
Summary Cocoa is rich in polyphenols, which have significant health benefits, including reduced inflammation and improved cholesterol levels. However, processing cocoa into chocolate or other products can substantially decrease the polyphenol content.
Cocoa, both in its powdered form and in the form of dark chocolate, may be able to help lower blood pressure (2).
This effect was first noted in the cocoa-drinking island people of Central America, who had much lower blood pressure than their non-cocoa-drinking mainland relatives (3).
One review analyzed 35 experiments that provided patients with 0.05–3.7 ounces (1.4–105 grams) of cocoa products, or roughly 30–1,218 mg of flavanols. It found that cocoa produced a small but significant reduction of 2 mmHg in blood pressure.
Additionally, the effect was greater in people who already had high blood pressure than those without it and in older people compared to younger people (3).
However, it’s important to remember that processing significantly reduces the number of flavanols, so the effects most likely will not be seen from the average chocolate bar.
Summary Studies reveal that cocoa is rich in flavanols, which lower blood pressure by improving nitric oxide levels and blood vessel function. Cocoa containing between 30–1,218 mg of flavanols can reduce blood pressure by an average of 2 mmHg.
A review of nine studies in 157,809 people found that higher chocolate consumption was associated with a significantly lower risk of heart disease, stroke and death (9).
Two Swedish studies found that chocolate intake is linked to a lower rate of heart failure at doses of up to one serving of 0.7–1.1 ounces (19–30 grams) of chocolate per day, but the effect was not seen when consuming higher amounts (10, 11).
These results suggest that frequent consumption of small amounts of cocoa-rich chocolate may have protective benefits for your heart.
Summary Cocoa can improve blood flow and reduce cholesterol. Eating up to one serving of chocolate per day may reduce your risk of heart attack, heart failure and stroke.
Several studies have found that polyphenols, such as those in cocoa, may reduce your risk of neurodegenerative diseases by improving brain function and blood flow.
Flavanols can cross the blood-brain barrier and are involved in the biochemical pathways that produce neurons and important molecules for the function of your brain.
A two-week study in 34 older adults given high-flavanol cocoa found blood flow to the brain increased by 8% after one week and 10% after two weeks (14).
These studies indicate a positive role of cocoa on brain health and possible positive effects on neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. However, more research is needed.
Summary Flavanols in cocoa can support neuron production, brain function and improve blood flow and supply to brain tissue. They may have a role in preventing age-related brain degeneration, such as in Alzheimer's disease, but more research is needed.
In addition to cocoa’s positive impact on age-related mental degeneration, its effect on the brain may also improve mood and symptoms of depression (2).
The positive effects on mood may be due to cocoa’s flavanols, the conversion of tryptophan to the natural mood stabilizer serotonin, its caffeine content or simply the sensory pleasure of eating chocolate (12, 18, 19).
One study on chocolate consumption and stress levels in pregnant women found that more frequent intake of chocolate was associated with reduced stress and improved mood in babies (20).
Furthermore, another study discovered that drinking high-polyphenol cocoa improved calmness and contentment (12).
Additionally, a study in senior men showed that eating chocolate was linked to improved overall health and better psychological well-being (21).
While the results of these early studies are promising, more research on the effect of cocoa on mood and depression is needed before more definite conclusions can be drawn.
Summary Cocoa may exert some positive effects on mood and symptoms of depression by reducing stress levels and improving calmness, contentment and overall psychological well-being. However, more research is needed.
Though overconsumption of chocolate is certainly not good for blood sugar control, cocoa does, in fact, have some anti-diabetic effects.
Test-tube studies indicate that cocoa flavanols can slow down carbohydrate digestion and absorption in the gut, improve insulin secretion, reduce inflammation and stimulate the uptake of sugar out of the blood into the muscle (22).
Additionally, a review of human studies showed that eating flavanol-rich dark chocolate or cocoa can reduce insulin sensitivity, improve blood sugar control and reduce inflammation in diabetic and nondiabetic people (22).
Nevertheless, these results combined with the more concrete positive effects on heart health indicate cocoa polyphenols may have a positive impact on both preventing and controlling diabetes, though more research is required.
Summary Cocoa and dark chocolate may reduce your risk of diabetes and maintain healthy blood sugar levels. However, there are some conflicting results in the scientific evidence, so more research is needed.
Somewhat paradoxically, cocoa intake, even in the form of chocolate, may help you control your weight.
A population study found that people who consumed chocolate more frequently had a lower BMI than people who ate it less often, despite the former group also eating more calories and fat (28).
Additionally, a weight loss study using low-carbohydrate diets found that a group given 42 grams or about 1.5 ounces of 81% cocoa chocolate per day lost weight faster than the regular diet group (29).
However, other studies have found that chocolate consumption increases weight. Yet, many of them did not differentiate between the type of chocolate consumed — white and milk chocolate do not have the same benefits as dark (30, 31).
Overall, it appears that cocoa and cocoa-rich products may be helpful in achieving weight loss or maintaining weight, but further studies are needed.
Summary Cocoa products are associated with a lower weight, and the addition of cocoa to your diet may help achieve faster weight loss. However, more research is needed on this topic to determine exactly what type and how much cocoa is ideal.
Flavanols in fruits, vegetables and other foods have attracted a great deal of interest due to their cancer-protective properties, low toxicity and few adverse side effects.
Cocoa has the highest concentration of flavanols out of all foods per weight and can significantly contribute to their amount in your diet (32).
Test-tube studies on components of cocoa have found that they have antioxidant effects, protect cells against damage from reactive molecules, fight inflammation, inhibit cell growth, induce cancer cell death and help prevent the spread of cancer cells (32, 33).
Animal studies using a cocoa-rich diet or cocoa extracts have seen positive results in reducing breast, pancreatic, prostate, liver and colon cancer, as well as leukemia (32).
Studies in humans have shown that flavanol-rich diets are associated with a decrease in cancer risk. However, the evidence for cocoa specifically is conflicting, as some trials have found no benefit and some have even noticed an increased risk (34, 35, 36).
Small human studies on cocoa and cancer suggest that it can be a powerful antioxidant and may play a role in cancer prevention. However, much more research is needed (37).
Summary The flavanols in cocoa have been shown to have promising anti-cancer properties in test-tube and animal studies, but data from human trials is lacking.
It’s thought that cocoa may be beneficial for people with asthma, as it contains anti-asthmatic compounds, such as theobromine and theophylline.
Theophylline helps your lungs dilate, your airways relax and decreases inflammation (39).
Animal studies have shown that cocoa extract can reduce both the constriction of the airways and tissue thickness (38).
However, these findings have not yet been clinically tested in humans, and it’s unclear if cocoa is safe to use with other anti-asthmatic drugs.
Therefore, even though this is an interesting area of development, it’s too early to say how cocoa may be used in treating asthma.
Summary Cocoa extract has demonstrated some anti-asthmatic properties in animal studies. However, human trials are needed before it can be recommended as a treatment.
Several studies have explored the protective effects of cocoa against dental cavities and gum disease.
Cocoa contains many compounds that have antibacterial, anti-enzymatic and immune-stimulating properties that may contribute to its oral health effects.
In one study, rats infected with oral bacteria that were given cocoa extract had a significant reduction in dental cavities, compared to those given only water (2).
However, there are no significant human studies, and the majority of cocoa products consumed by humans also contain sugar. As a result, new products will need to be developed to experience the oral health benefits of cocoa.
Summary Cocoa can promote healthy teeth by fighting bacteria that cause cavities, though this does not apply to sugar-containing products. It also promotes healthy skin by protecting it from sunlight and improving circulation, the skin surface and hydration.
The exact amount of cocoa you should include in your diet to achieve health benefits is not clear.
The European Food Safety Authority recommends 0.1 ounces (2.5 grams) of high-flavanol cocoa powder or 0.4 ounces (10 grams) of high-flavanol dark chocolate containing at least 200 mg of flavanols per day to achieve heart health benefits (44).
Overall, it’s important to select cocoa sources that have a high flavanol content — the less processed, the better.
Fun ways to add cocoa to your diet include:
- Eat dark chocolate: Make sure it’s good quality and contains at least 70% cocoa. Check out this guide on selecting high-quality dark chocolate.
- Hot/cold cocoa: Mix cocoa with your favorite dairy or nondairy milk for a chocolate milkshake.
- Smoothies: Cocoa can be added to your favorite healthy smoothie recipe to give it a richer, chocolatey taste.
- Puddings: You can add raw cocoa powder (not Dutch) to homemade puddings like chia breakfast puddings or rice pudding.
- Vegan chocolate mousse: Process avocado, cocoa, almond milk and a sweetener like dates for a thick vegan chocolate mousse.
- Sprinkle over fruit: Cocoa is particularly nice sprinkled over bananas or strawberries.
- Granola bars: Add cocoa to your favorite granola bar mixture to bump up the health benefits and enrich the flavor.
Summary For heart health, include 0.1 ounces (2.5 grams) of high-flavanol cocoa powder or 0.4 ounces (10 grams) of high-flavanol chocolate in your diet. Adding cocoa can give a delicious chocolate taste to your dishes.
Cocoa has captivated the world for thousands of years and is a big part of modern cuisine in the form of chocolate.
Health benefits of cocoa include decreased inflammation, improved heart and brain health, blood sugar and weight control and healthy teeth and skin.
It’s nutritious and easy to add to your diet in creative ways. However, make sure to use non-alkalized cocoa powder or dark chocolate containing more than 70% cocoa if you want to maximize health benefits.
Remember that chocolate still contains significant quantities of sugar and fats, so if you’re going to use it, stick to reasonable portion sizes and combine it with a healthy balanced diet.