Ripe Cacoa Pods, Ecuador. Photo courtesy Medicine Hunter

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Medicine Hunter in Cocoa Land

Recently I traveled to the South American country of Ecuador, where I continued a long-time passion, investigating cocoa. This has been a subject of great interest to me, and I wanted to see for myself the legendary cocoa plantations of Esmeraldas Province in Ecuador, where some of the world’s finest cocoa beans originate. Many people involved in the cocoa trade consider the fine beans of Esmeraldas as some of the most flavorful and aromatic of all cocoa beans grown.

In case you think I’m simply a snackaholic looking for the next candy fix, let me explain my interest in cocoa. Over the past dozen years or so, a steady stream of science has emerged, showing that cocoa and the confection made from it (chocolate) are exceptionally good for health. Most notably, cocoa demonstrates significant benefits for the cardiovascular system, helping to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, elevate HDL (good) cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, reduce the risk of high blood pressure, and even reduce the risk of cancer.

Furthermore, cocoa consumption is associated with reduced cognitive decline in old age. Another dimension of the benefits of cocoa and chocolate consumption concerns mood. Cocoa is rich in agents that enhance the production of various feel-good chemicals in the brain, notably serotonin and dopamine. This means that cocoa possesses anti-depressant, mood-elevating properties.

This is no surprise to the any millions of people who self medicate with chocolate every day.

A few weeks before my trip to Ecuador, I sat with Dr. Norman Hollenberg at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. Hollenberg, a medical doctor who is also a professor at Harvard University, has conducted ground-breaking research into the health benefits of cocoa — specifically with a native group living on the San Blas islands off of Panama. The tribe, known as the Kuna, have approximately ten percent the rates of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and cancer of other populations. This remarkable health status has brought the Kuna to the attention of various medical experts, including Hollenberg.

In his years working in Panama, Hollenberg observed that the Kuna people only drink water mixed with cocoa, which they raise year around. As a result of consuming a lot of cocoa daily, the Kuna enjoy unusual cardiovascular health. According to Hollenberg, the Kuna also experience far less cognitive decline in their latter years. In other words, cocoa might prove to be a preventive factor against various neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Hollenberg’s remarkable research led to several important published studies showing that cocoa is one of the healthiest substances you can put in your body. This information has spread like wildfire around the world.

Inspired by Hollenberg’s research, I determined to continue investigating cocoa, as I have done in various parts of the tropics, including Venezuela, Peru, Central America and the South Pacific. Journeying to Ecuador, I headed to the offices of FONMSOEAM, a cooperative of over 350 cocoa growers who produce their crops under organic certification, and according to fair trade practices. I am a firm believer in organic agriculture, as I don’t want toxic chemicals sprayed on food crops, or on my dinner pate. As far as fair trade is concerned, it means no child labor, and improved wages. I support this enthusiastically.

With the growers of FONMSOEAM, I was taken out into the countryside where I witnessed cocoa harvesting, the fermenting and drying of cocoa beans, and the eventual processing of roasted cocoa beans into a homemade hot chocolate drink. I found the people welcoming and generous in their hospitality and the entire cocoa scene both colorful and fascinating. As far as the homemade hot chocolate is concerned, it was some of the best I have ever tasted in my life.

So what can I recommend about cocoa and chocolate from a health standpoint? Your very best option is to eat certified organic, unsweetened cocoa powder in various foods, such as shakes, smoothies, and baked goods. If you are an ardent chocolate lover, make sure you are eating the really dark semi-sweet chocolate, over 70 percent cocoa. If you are diabetic, avoid chocolate due to the sugar content, and stick to unsweetened cocoa. All others can enjoy a bar a day of the really dark stuff, deriving significant health benefits in the process. As far as milk chocolate and various candies that contain chocolate are concerned, don’t bother. They contain way too many calories and too little cocoa to matter.

In the 1970’s, a number of natural health advocates insisted that cocoa and chocolate were bad for health. As it turned out, those so-called health experts were highly misinformed. Today we are far wiser. Cocoa and chocolate have emerged as health superstars. This odd turn of events is of course thrilling to cocoa and chocolate lovers.

The work of Hollenberg and other researchers continues, as cocoa’s secrets unfold. This remarkable bean from the pod of a tree not only produces a delicious confection much admired worldwide, but also is proving to be a miracle medicine, capable of warding off some of the most serious killer diseases afflicting humanity.

November 2010