Cocoa powder is packed with antioxidant flavonoids that may help lower cholesterol, keep blood vessels healthy and protect brain function as you age. On its own, cocoa powder is low in calories, but because it’s usually sweetened and mixed with milk or used in baked goods, keep an eye on the added sugar, calories and fat you consume.
The cocoa tree, or Theobroma cacao, produces a football-shaped pod that contains raw cacao beans. The raw beans are fermented after being removed from the pod, which nurtures the bean’s characteristic chocolate flavor.
After fermentation, the beans are dried, roasted and ground to yield a product called cocoa liquor, although it doesn’t contain any alcohol. Cocoa liquor is pressed to separate cocoa butter from cocoa solids. When the solids are ground, you have cocoa powder.
Cocoa Solids and Flavonoids
Cocoa contains more antioxidant flavonoids than most foods, according to a 2011 report in Antioxidants and Redox Signaling. Since cocoa powder offers many different flavonoids, you'll hear them called by a variety of names, including flavanols, polyphenols, catechins and procyanidins.
You’ll only get flavonoids from cacao solids, which is why the percentage of solids in chocolate is important. About 88 percent to 96 percent of cocoa powder consists of cacao solids, reports the University of Michigan. Dark chocolate contains 45 percent to 80 percent of chocolate solids, milk chocolate has 5 percent to 7 percent and white chocolate doesn’t have any solids at all.
Cocoa powder may help lower blood pressure, but that’s just one way it protects your cardiovascular system. Cacao flavonoids also relax muscles in blood vessel walls, which improves blood flow, according to a study in the British Journal of Nutrition in February 2014.
Levels of inflammation decreased when patients at risk for cardiovascular disease took cocoa powder, reported a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in September 2009. This anti-inflammatory influence might reduce the risk of arterial disease.
Cocoa powder also helps boost HDL, or good cholesterol, and lower LDL cholesterol, which is the type of cholesterol that builds up in your blood vessels, according to a review in Nutrients in February 2014.
Polyphenols in cocoa powder show promise for preventing or delaying age-related memory loss. Their antioxidant action may protect brain neurons, but cocoa flavonoids also prevent nerve degeneration associated with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a laboratory study published in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry in September 2014. More research using people is needed to verify the role of cocoa flavonoids in cognition and memory.
You may need to avoid cocoa powder if you have irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux disease or a history of calcium oxalate kidney stones. Chocolate is one of four foods that commonly trigger IBS symptoms, and it contains methylxanthin, which can aggravate GERD in some people. It’s also a high-oxalate food that might increase recurrence of kidney stones.
A tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder only has 12 milligrams of caffeine, reports the USDA National Nutrient Database. Most people can tolerate 200 milligrams to 300 milligrams daily, the amount in about 2 to 4 cups of coffee.
- University of Michigan Integrative Medicine: Dark Chocolate
- Antioxidants and Redox Signaling: Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: Effect of Cocoa on Blood Pressure
- British Journal of Nutrition: Effects of Dark Chocolate and Cocoa Consumption on Endothelial Function and Arterial Stiffness in Overweight Adults
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Effect of Cocoa Powder on the Modulation of Inflammatory Biomarkers in Patients at High Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
- Nutrients: Cocoa Polyphenols and Inflammatory Markers of Cardiovascular Disease
- Journal of Cellular Biochemistry: Cocoa Powder Triggers Neuroprotective and Preventive Effects in a Human Alzheimer’s Disease Model by Modulating BDNF Signaling Pathway
- Virginia Tech: Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- McKinley Health Center: The GERD Diet
- NYU Langone Medical Center: Low-Oxalate Diet
- Photo Credit hlphoto/iStock/Getty Images
Weight Loss Smoothies
You've probably said it. After a big summer barbecue, or following a Thanksgiving feast, we've all felt that twinge of regret and...
How Chocolate Affects Your Brain
There's been a lot of talk about the health benefits of dark chocolate for your body, but what about your brain? Chocolate...
The Best Cocoa Powders for Baking
Cocoa powder adds intense chocolate flavor to baked goods, and just as different chocolates have different taste notes, cocoa powders vary as...