"The Food of The Gods": Cocoa and Its Valuable Products
Cocoa tree has been known since ancient times, but to this day new and new things are found about it and the properties of cocoa seeds - cocoa powder and cocoa butter.
Author: Elena Marinova, Master of Pharmacy
The cocoa tree is well known to all of us, because it makes delicious chocolate, which is a favorite of young and old. But do you know that in addition to being delicious, chocolate is also healthy when consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet?
The cocoa powder from which chocolate is made is derived from cocoa beans. They contain a significant amount of fat (40-50%), in the form of cocoa butter, which is used in cosmetics and in the pharmaceutical industry. All these qualities and applications make the cocoa tree a plant of great economic importance.
The Cocoa Tree
Cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) is an evergreen tree that comes from the rainforests of South America. It reaches a height of about 8 meters, and its leaves are poisonous and contain a creamy milk-like liquid.
An interesting fact is that the flowers of the plant are not pollinated by bees, but by small Forcipomyia flies. The fruit is yellow-orange and egg-shaped. It contains between 20 and 60 cocoa seeds.
Cocoa in Antiquity
The name of the cocoa tree from ancient Greek means "food of the gods": Theos - "God", broma - "food". According to the ancient Mayan, cocoa tree has a divine origin and was considered a gift from the gods.
During the classical period of Mayan civilization, a bitter-hot drink was prepared from cocoa seeds mixed with spices. This drink was taken as an elixir that strengthens health.
The Aztecs believed that the fruits of the cocoa tree were a symbol of life and fertility, and their consumption led to the acquisition of strength and wisdom. Cocoa was believed to have nutritional and health-promoting properties, and was also used as an aphrodisiac. [ref.1]
Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to discover cocoa beans and liken them to mysterious-looking "almonds."
Cocoa Seeds Are Valuable - Here's Why
Cocoa is the cocoa tree seeds and cocoa powder derived from them. The word "cocoa" again refers us to the Aztecs - in their language cacahuatl means cocoa bean. They used cocoa beans as a currency - a cloth cloak was exchanged for 80-100 cocoa beans.
Cocoa seeds have been valued not only because they have been used as a bargaining chip. Their nutritional and beneficial properties have been known in the past and researchers continue studying them.
Cocoa seeds give us cocoa powder and cocoa butter.
What Is Cocoa Powder
Cocoa powder has a brown color, a specific pleasant aroma and bitter taste. It is obtained from cocoa beans through the processes of fermentation and drying, which are extremely important for its physical properties - smell and taste.
Cocoa powder is stored in tightly closed porcelain or glass containers at room temperature to preserve its aroma for a longer time. In water, quality cocoa powder forms a suspension (solid particles evenly distributed in a solvent) which retaina for 2 minutes before settling.
Cocoa powder is used to make chocolate and cocoa drink.
The Beneficial Properties of Cocoa Beans and Cocoa Powder
Both seeds and cocoa powder contain biologically active substances - polyphenol compounds, of which flavanols (epicatechins and oligomeric procyanidines), theobromine, etc. are most important.
Flavanols in cocoa have many beneficial properties [ref.2]:
- reduce high blood pressure,
- reduce aggregation (clumping) of platelets,
- improve blood flow,
- increase the elasticity of blood vessels,
- stimulate the production of nitric oxide,
- have anti-inflammatory effect.
Recently, especially alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about oxidative stress. It is a state of imbalance between the formation and accumulation of reactive oxygen species in cells and tissues and the ability of the body's natural biological systems to "dispose" of these products. Oxidative stress plays a key role in many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular, neuro-degenerative, cancer, diabetes and others.
Read more in the article What are free radicals and antioxidants.
Antioxidants are substances that reduce oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals in the body by various mechanisms. Polyphenols in cocoa are exactly this.
Due to their antioxidant activity, cocoa seeds and dark chocolate belong to the group of "superfoods" or more to the "superfruits".
There is plenty of research that proves the antioxidant action of cocoa, but unfortunately it is low with oral administration (a method of administration in which a substance is taken orally).
In the production of cocoa powder, fermentation and drying are key processes. They greatly reduce the amount of polyphenols, respectively reduce the antioxidant properties. [ref.3]
Short-term cocoa consumption has been shown to have an anxiolytic (soothing, fear-eliminating and anxiety-eliminating) effect, and with longer use there is an increase in serotonin concentration (the "happiness hormone"). [ref.4]
What Is Cocoa Butter Used For
Cocoa butter is the other valuable product that is extracted from cocoa seeds and used as a raw material in the production of chocolate, in cosmetics and in the technology of certain medicinal forms.
The oil has a pale yellow color and a characteristic smell. It contains large amounts of saturated fatty acids (palmitic and stearic), as well as monounsaturated fatty acid called oleic acid.
Cocoa butter is used in the production of white and dark chocolate. As its price rises, cheaper substitutes have recently been sought, but they do not have the same qualities.
The application of cocoa butter in pharmacy is associated with its main qualities - lack of toxicity, easy modeling (its melting point is close to body temperature), does not interact with medicinal substances. It is used as a basis in the technology of suppositories and globules.
Cocoa butter is common in the composition of cosmetic products. It is used in creams/ointments that nourish the skin, make it soft and elastic, help to erase stretch marks and smooth wrinkles. It is added to products for easier acquisition of summer tan - "bronze tan".
Easy Cocoa Butter Recipe for Beautiful Skin
About 100 g of cocoa butter is melted in a water bath at a low temperature (up to 37°C, because at a higher temperature, cocoa butter changes its properties).
A few drops of lavender oil, calendula oil and chamomile oil are added to the liquefied product.
The resulting mixture is placed in a glass jar and stored in a cool place, away from light.
After a while, the product goes from liquid to solid, which allows easier application to the skin. If you like you may also add coconut oil.
If you do not have time to fulfill the prescription above, you can simply take a lump of cocoa butter and apply to the skin - the lump melts on the body and so the oil is applied easily and quickly.
How to Store Cocoa Butter
Cocoa butter is stored in a glass or porcelain container protected from direct sunlight at a temperature of about 20 °C.
You now know why dark chocolate (containing a larger amount of cocoa) is so useful, but no matter what you choose (black, white, with nuts or without), the day is always better with a piece of chocolate!
- Chocolate and medicine: dangerous liaisons?, 2009, Nutrition
- Cacao seeds are a "Super Fruit": A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products, 2011, Chemistry Central Journal
- Anti-Oxidative Polyphenolic Compounds of Cocoa, 2015, Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology
- Anxiolytic effects of short- and long-term administration of cacao mass on rat elevated T-maze test, 2009, Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry
👩 🔬 Elena Marinova graduated from the Medical University of Sofia. She has been a pharmacist for more than 2 years. During her practical experience she mastered the preparation of extemporaneous dosage forms and got acquainted with the work in a hospital pharmacy. In her free time she likes to dance, listen to music, and exercise.