Today, chocolate is praised for its tremendous antioxidant potential. The higher the cocoa content, the more health benefits there are and the less sugar content, which is better for overall health.
Mayan and Aztec cultures have used cocoa for many medicinal purposes such as for the treatment of pain, fevers and coughs. Today, it is known that theobromine, the main xanthine found in cocoa, relaxes the smooth muscle in the digestive tract while both caffeine and thebromine can combat fatigue and provide an energy boost. Both theobromine and caffeine have diuretic and vasodilatory properties.
Theobromine also has a similar action but a much milder effect than caffeine on the central nervous system. Components in cocoa, principally, appear to have beneficial effects on the body's cardiovascular system by lowering blood pressure, anti-inflammatory properties, reducing platelet aggregation, increasing the HDL/LDL ratio and reducing LDL oxidation.
The health benefits of high-antioxidant foods have taken the scientific world (and the media) by storm. Recent studies suggest that the antioxidants in foods may reduce the risk of many kinds of illness, from heart disease to cancer.
Antioxidants like those found in dark chocolate and cocoa have also been linked to some of the hallmarks of good cardiovascular health such as enhanced blood flow, healthy cholesterol levels and, in some cases, reduced blood pressure.
Studies show that as soon as 30 minutes after eating one 40 gram serving of dark chocolate blood levels of the two main antioxidants in chocolate, epicatechin and catechin, are heightened. They peak two hours after consumption and are cleared from the body after about six hours. Antioxidants work by protecting your cells from damaging molecules called free radicals.
Free radicals are basically unstable oxygen molecules that can trigger changes in the structure of normally healthy cells. This damage is thought to be an underlying cause of many chronic diseases. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals.
The kinds of antioxidants found in chocolate are called polyphenols, a large class of molecules found in fruits and vegetables like oranges, soybeans and berries. Dark chocolate and cocoa are particularly high in a sub-class of those compounds called flavanols, which are also found in red grapes and tea.
The reason dark chocolate and cocoa powder rank so high is that the antioxidants are very concentrated. Around 12-16% of the weight of dry raw cocoa beans consists of polyphenols alone.