COCOA BEAN (Theobroma cacao )

Latin: Theobroma cacao
Chinese: Cha ku li

WHAT IT DOES: Cocoa bean is bitter in taste and warming in action.  It stimulates the mind and elevates mood.

RATING: Yellow, due to minor limitations in usage (contains caffeine)

SAFETY ISSUES: None known of significance. In rare cases may trigger headaches.

• Dried powder: one to two grams two times per day.  May be used sweetened or unsweetened.

The Latin Theobroma means “Food of the Gods.” Cocoa bean and its derivative, chocolate, can help digestion, increase blood flow to the heart, and ease chest congestion.  It is high in antioxidants and happens to taste better than most other herbs.  In Central America, cocoa bean has long been used to treat pregnancy problems and ease childbirth, coughs, chest congestion, and fever.  Its use in the Western world took off in 1876 with the invention of milk chocolate.
Cocoa bean contains caffeine, tryptophan (a serotonin percursor), theobromine (a substance similar to caffeine) and amandamides (substances that activate the same receptor in the brain as marijuana).  Of course, commercial cocoa products are loaded with sugar, so I prefer to make my own hot cocoa with soy milk, sweetened with a mixture of honey and stevia leaf.  Sugar-free cocoa powder can be a good choice in formulas for patients in need of mild mood elevation.  By the way, the amandamides are present in very, very small amounts, so if you want to get high from chocolate, you have to get fat too (Shively and Tarka, Jr 1984).
 A recent Harvard School of Public Health study that received national attention in the popular press revealed that males who eat chocolate once or twice per week live, on average, one year longer than those who do not indulge.  Unfortunately, the same result has not been demonstrated in women.  Sorry

Cocoa bean and chocolate, like coffee bean and tea leaves all contain xanthines, chemicals that help relax bronchial spasms and can be useful for treating allergies and asthma, especially in emergencies where no other medication is available (reported in Duke, 1997).

The xanthines include coffeine, theobromine and theophylline.  People may actually use chocolate instinctively as a form of self-medication for dietary deficiencies, or to increase low levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.  Additionally, many Americans are deficient in magnesium, and chocolate craving may be a sign of magnesium deficiency.  

Research highlights

• A placebo-controlled crossover study at the Institute of Sports Medicine at Beijing Medical University looked at the affect of chocolate on exercise recovery rates.  Chocolate bar supplementation before exercise improved recovery by keeping blood sugars and other blood chemicals at good levels for up to 30 minutes after completion of one hour of running (Chen et al., 1996).

• Researchers have found that the episodic nature of chocolate cravings fluctuates with hormonal changes in women just before and during the menses, suggesting a hormonal link (Bruinsma and Taren, 1999).

• One cup of cocoa has about half as much caffeine as one cup of coffee, and it has a slower onset and longer course of action.  Contrary to popular belief, and contradicting some earlier studies, caffeine in normal doses does not appear harmful to the heart, and does not increase risks of heart attack or arrhythmia (Chou and Benowitz, 1994).

• Animal studies have shown that chocolate supplementation seems to correct magnesium deficiency, but in the interest of calorie-counting and overall dietary sensibility it probably makes sense to correct this problem with dietary adjustments or supplementation rather than a chocolate feast (Planells et al., 1999).
• Surprisingly, milk chocolate does not seem to elevate blood fats such as cholesterol in spite of its high saturated fat content.  Controlled studies indicate repeatedly that this is due to the unique effect of a saturated fatty acid called stearic acid (Kris-Etherton and Mustad, 1994).

more on cocoa compounds such as flavonoids