Cocoa: why can’t we leave nature alone?

Cocoa is food for thought

If you’re familiar with my philosophy, you know I’m not an extremist but there are times when I simply don’t understand why we just can’t enjoy what nature provides to us. Case in point: cocoa. Yes, natural cocoa has a slight bitter edge to it and it’s not as dark and rich looking as its dutched counterpart. But it’s this kind of cocoa that provides the growing list of health perks. Yet some food companies choose to ignore that certain processes such as dutching or adding alkali can significantly decrease our ability to reap cocoa’s assorted disease-fighting benefits.

The latest is Ghirardelli who has come out with their new Majestic 20/22% Premium Nib-Alkalized Cocoa Powder.  I’m frequently asked about which brands of cocoa I recommend and at the top of the list was Ghirardelli.

Well, that’s the end of that.

Let me explain: dutching or adding alkali raises the pH or decreases the cocoa’s acidity. While the process does reduce the product’s bitterness and yields a darker colour, the amount of  health-promoting flavanols (part of the family of beneficial compounds known as flavonoids and polyphenols) is also decreased.

So if you’re having cocoa for both your enjoyment and for the health of it, look for natural cocoa products. Skip those that are labelled “Dutched” or have alkali or sodium bicarbonate in the ingredient list.

As for cocoa’s health benefits, as I mentioned, the list just keeps on getting longer. The latest investigation was conducted by Italian scientists using what’s called the gold standard of research: a clinical double-blinded  study – meaning neither the researchers nor the subjects knew who was getting the placebo or the substance being tested.  The  90 elderly  subjects, who were without any real evidence of cognitive dysfunction, were randomly assigned to consume daily for 8 weeks either  one of 3 different  drinks: a high cocoa flavanol beverage, an intermediate flavanol drink or one that contained only a small amount of cocoa flavanols.  The cognitive function of the subjects  was assessed at the start of the study and then after 8 weeks using three different tests.

After  that short time period of  only 8 weeks, the  participants assigned to the intermediate– and high– cocoa flavanol intake group showed a clear improvement in performance in neuropsychology tests which are sensitive markers of cognitive decline and dementia.

But there was more. The participants also improved in a list of  other disease-linked variables, including blood pressure, insulin resistance, blood cholesterol profiles, and markers of oxidative stress.  In an accompanying editorial in the journal American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientist Miguel Alonso-Alonso states, “When combined, this body of data supports the idea of including flavanol-rich cocoa products in the diet of this population, starting before cognitive decline occurs.”  He adds, “With the generation of baby boomers reaching advanced ages, and the rates of Alzheimer disease expected to triple by 2050, there is a need to identify nutrients that, in combination with other treatments, can help sustain brain and cognitive health and potentially reverse the impact of aging and dementia.”

Sure sounds like a pretty good reason to go natural to me. Don’t you agree?


Do you use cocoa regularly? How do you enjoy it? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Nutrition News, Rosie's Rants, Whole Foods

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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4 Comments on “Cocoa: why can’t we leave nature alone?”

  1. Byrl Staples
    April 27, 2015 at 6:57 am #

    Very interesting. I am not surprised. The food companies do not seem to care what they do to our food. They seem to just care about the bottom line not what they are doing to our health. What brand of cocoa do you think is the best now?

  2. April 27, 2015 at 8:31 am #

    Byrl, Hershey’s is natural and is one name brand that’s easy to find. I’ve also found various brands in health food stores but some of these tend to be pricier. I still have some of the natural Ghirardelli but I likely won’t find it again once I finish this container.

  3. April 27, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    I use cocoa on a daily basis, never alkalized! I mix it into my (homemade) yogurt with berries, cinnamon, & vanilla. Or I bake breakfast cookies with it, or blend it with soft tofu & a little maple syrup for a treat. So tasty. Plus, a source of iron! Thanks for sharing this post Rosie 🙂

    • April 27, 2015 at 8:58 am #

      My pleasure, Melissa! Thanks for your great ideas. They all sound delicious!

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