Ah, chocolate. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't enjoy the concoction in some form or another. Humans have consumed food items derived from cacao pods for over three thousand years, for both ceremonial and recreational purposes. Apart from being a delectable treat, you'd be surprised to know that the tiny brown squares have a myriad of health benefits, primarily cognitive and cardiovascular, which are both important factors for optimal biomechanical performance and longevity. Jeanne Louise Calment, the oldest person whose age is documented, ate two pounds of the stuff every week up until her death at age 122. 

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The cardiovascular and cognitive aspects of the health benefits cocoa offers are indubitably linked to longevity. A majority of these benefits can be attributed to the high ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, a metric used to measure the antioxidant activity of foods) of cacao and cacao-based products. Chocolate, in its many forms, has a considerably higher ORAC when compared to most foods. The bulk of this antioxidant activity is due to chocolate’s high flavanol content. Flavanols are phytochemicals that are part of the flavonoid group and can have a range of effects when ingested. There are three main flavanols found in cacao: procyanidins, epicatechin, and catechin. All three of these flavanols have strong antioxidative properties through which they enhance several biological pathways. It would be impossible to list the sheer number of processes these phytochemicals alter in conjunction with each other; that said, some of their more important actions and effects thereof are worth a look.

Epicatechin is considered to be the most important antioxidant in cacao. It is associated with both cognitive and cardiovascular enhancement, with one being the consequence of the other. The compound increases the amount of nitric oxide produced in the body, which improves cardiovascular performance by optimizing blood circulation while simultaneously curtailing oxygen expenditure. This increased blood circulation to the brain improves cognitive function. There are several studies that tie the regular consumption of cacao to improved attention, memory retention, and active learning.

Catechins reduce oxidative stress in the gut by activating anti-oxidative substances like glutathione and glutathione peroxidase. Procyanidins are polyphenols that offer two benefits: modulating LDL cholesterol and lowering capillary permeability. Reduced oxidative stress in the gut, in combination with low LDL levels, effectuates increased insulation sensitivity, thereby lowering the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Optimized blood circulation and decreased capillary permeability can greatly improve skin health by optimizing the stability of proteins like collagen and elastin, and also decreasing inflammation caused by UV rays.

Two other chemicals present in cacao that greatly enhance cognition are theobromine and caffeine. Theobromine is the primary alkaloid present in cocoa, at a concentration ten times greater than caffeine. The dual action of both caffeine and theobromine has an interesting effect on cognition. Caffeine has long been renowned for its ability to enhance psychomotor performance by blocking adenosine receptors and contracting blood vessels to improve blood circulation. Theobromine also increases blood pressure, albeit via dilation. The dual action of theobromine and caffeine, in a system where the concentration of theobromine is substantially higher, produces an effect similar to that of high doses of caffeine without the infamous caffeine crash or negative effects on sleep. The vasodilation induced by theobromine can enhance the effect of tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in cacao. Tryptophan can enhance the production of serotonin (a mood-regulating hormone) and melatonin (a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle), considerably enhancing mood and sleep quality.

Such enhancements to biological processes are only possible with elevated levels of these compounds circulating through the system. That is achieved through regular consumption of high-quality cacao or cacao derivatives. For those seeking the highest concentration of phytochemicals, hot chocolate made with unrefined cacao powder may be the best option. However, most studies that revolve around cacao have the participants supplement their diets with 70% dark chocolate, a far more accessible derivative of cacao. An optimum intake, according to several studies, is not more than 1000 grams, spread over three times a week. More than this has little effect on disease prevention but may enhance nootropic effects.

Cacao and high-quality chocolate are also extremely nutritious. Cacao is a great source of fiber, with a two-tablespoon serving of raw cacao powder containing about 3.6 grams, or 14 percent of the recommended daily intake. Both cacao and chocolate are also rich in micronutrients, namely iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, selenium, manganese, potassium, and phosphorus.