As more research comes out about the benefits of unsweetened cocoa powder, we wouldn’t be surprised if you boost the stock in your pantry. Just one tablespoon of this powerhouse nutrient provides an ample amount of magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium, along with smaller amounts of calcium and iron. It even contains a significant amount of protein.
Investigators have already established that unsweetened cocoa powder is an excellent dietary add-in (try it in your coffee!) because it contains polyphenols and flavanols, two powerful antioxidants. Polyphenols may help regulate metabolism to aid in weight loss and reduce chronic inflammation, while a diet rich in flavanols can help lower blood pressure.
Now, this recent study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry suggests that cocoa powder may reduce the severity of fatty liver disease. The findings also support previous research linking cocoa powder to weight loss. Non-alcohol related fatty liver disease is often associated with obesity, and other studies have already demonstrated that the polyphenols in cocoa can ameliorate obesity and several diseases associated with it.
To better understand the effects of cocoa powder in the diet, scientists at Penn State measured certain biomarkers in obese mice that were fed high-fat meals. Why mice? Along with rats, they are preferred models for research because they are so genetically and physiologically similar to humans.
The biomarkers that researchers tracked included changes in fatty liver disease, markers of oxidative stress, antioxidant levels, and cell damage. For those who don’t know, oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Free radicals are highly reactive, oxygen-containing molecules that can cause cell damage. Antioxidants help to prevent that damage.
Each day during the study, some of the obese mice on high-fat diets were given 80 milligrams of cocoa powder for every gram of food. The mice remained on this diet for 10 weeks before researchers performed a final analysis of the data.
Upon completion of the investigation, scientists learned that the cocoa-consuming mice gained weight at a 22 percent lower rate than the mice that received no supplements. They also found that the mice on cocoa diets had lower spleen weights, suggesting that cocoa helped reduce spleen inflammation caused by a high-fat diet. The cocoa-fed mice experienced 57 percent less oxidative stress and 75 percent less DNA damage in liver cells as well.
Understanding the Science Behind Cocoa Powder
While we know that the polyphenols and flavanols inside cocoa powder may help regulate metabolism, reduce inflammation, and lower blood pressure, researchers are still unsure of exactly how these processes happen in the body. However, they believe that previous research from their lab may illuminate the answer. Apparently, the chemicals in cocoa powder may inhibit the enzymes in the digestive system that break down fats and carbohydrates.
In effect, the researchers theorize that the obese, cocoa-fed mice couldn’t digest at least some of the fat in their food. The fat may have just passed through their digestive systems without getting absorbed. According to the study authors, this same phenomenon may be true for humans, too.
How to Incorporate More Unsweetened Cacao and Cocoa Powder into Your Diet
Fortunately, the researchers used commercially-available cocoa powder during their study. This means that you may be able to reap the same benefits by adding a certain amount of cocoa to your diet.
So, what’s the recommended dose? As explained by the study authors, you would need to take about 10 tablespoons of powder per day to achieve a high dosage of antioxidants and nutrients. That comes out to about five cups of hot cocoa per day. Of course, researchers aren’t suggesting that five cups of hot chocolate will help you lose weight, especially if you are using a sweetened cocoa mix that’s been alkalized. Alkalized cocoa, or Dutch-processed cocoa, is far less bitter and acidic than natural powder, but contains far fewer health benefits.
If you can learn to love the bitter flavor, a simple blend of hot water and unsweetened cocoa may be a better alternative. You can also try adding a spoonful to your morning smoothie, or snacking on a few pieces of dark chocolate every day. Other cocoa enthusiasts love sprinkling a little unsweetened powder over banana slices on toast or adding it to homemade granola bars. However you choose to enjoy your all-natural cocoa powder, it may become an excellent tool in maintaining a healthy weight.