In the past, chocolate has been favoured as a high-calorie food to boost the energy of high performing people such as athletes or soldiers. Unfortunately, due to the processes and ingredients involved in making chocolate (sugar, milk, other refined ingredients with a high calorie content), it has been gradually classified as “junk food” and linked to the rise in the number of obesity cases.
Recently, more research has been conducted on the health and nutritional attributes of cocoa and chocolate. Regular consumption of cocoa can improve a person’s general mood and fight symptoms linked to depression, thus leading to a better quality of life. Research findings also indicate that some components in cocoa can help prevent cardiovascular diseases and reduce the risk of cancer. Additional health benefits include helping with the management of one’s weight and providing a source of antioxidants through cocoa fibres, or reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes through cocoa flavanols.
The health benefits are not only due to the fats in cocoa (cocoa butter), but, more importantly, to the fact that cocoa beans contain a large number of phytochemicals. These are physiologically active compounds found in plants, for example grapes, apples, tea, vegetables, etc. One group of these compounds is called flavonoids. There is a growing body of evidence about the health benefits of cocoa flavonoids. Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants and are believed to help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals, which are formed through numerous processes including the utilization of oxygen for energy. Laboratory and human studies have indicated that cocoa flavonoids can inhibit the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (LDL-cholesterol) associated with heart disease. There is also emerging evidence which suggests that cocoa and chocolate may contribute to reducing inflammation, better blood flow, lower blood pressure, improving cholesterol and blood sugar level. These beneficial properties originate from another type of phytochemical in cocoa, Polyphenols.
Furthermore, cocoa beans are the most concentrated source of theobromine. Theobromine and caffeine are both methylxanthines, a group of substances which have been extensively reviewed with relation to cognition and mental performance. Theobromine, as opposed to caffeine, has been proven to have a mild stimulatory effect on the central nervous system.
As focus on the health and nutritional aspects of cocoa and chocolate has been increasing, the ICCO Secretariat took the initiative, through the support of its Council, to take part in the ongoing debate, with the aim of conveying to the general public a more objective picture of the attributes of cocoa and chocolate. As a result, the Secretariat produced a first draft of an “Inventory of Health and Nutritional Attributes of Cocoa and Chocolate”, as well as a first draft of an Action Programme on the Health and Nutritional Aspects of Cocoa and Chocolate, which suggested organizing an international conference at which the latest research on this topic would be presented.