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THE DISCOVERY OF CACAO AS HEALTHY SUPERFOOD

Last Updated on April 20, 2021 by Nick Baskett

In 1944, Benjamin H. Kean was a 32-year-old army surgeon stationed in the Panama Canal Zone by the US army. Later he would play a disputed role in the Iran hostage crisis as physician to the exiled Shah. But in WWII he was an unknown doctor who, one quiet day decided to visit the islands of the San Blas archipelago, roughly 25 kilometres from the Panama coast.

There he met a group of Kuna Indians, who had lived in a very isolated situation for the past 500 years. He discovered that these Kuna Indians didn’t develop high blood pressure, even as they aged. He also learned that every member of this Indian tribe drank at least three to four cups of cacao per day, but he didn’t make the link. 

Benjamin Kean

50 years old medical journal

Dr. Kean published his observations in a medical journal, but no one took notice. Until 50 years later in the early 1990s, Harvard professor Dr. Norman Hollenberg found the article and decided to continue the research on the Kuna indians. His discoveries would mark the definitive breakthrough of cocoa as one of the healthiest food sources in the world.

Kuna indians preparing cacao

Photo by Chris Kilham of Medicine Hunter

Medical Detective

Dr. Norman Hollenberg (1935-2020) was at first looking for a genetic answer to high blood pressure. Through the article of Dr. Kean he had learned that the Kuna Indians of the San Blas islands almost never suffered a heart attack. He hoped that the moderate blood pressure of the isolated Kuna tribe would be the result of ‘good genes’.

Every three months he visited the tribe for a week. To his surprise he learned that tribal members who moved to the mainland of Panama started to experience high blood pressure, diabetes, heart diseases and even cancer; all health problems the islanders were somehow protected from.

This ruled out his initial theory of the existence of a protective gene, and he felt there had to be another cause. Being the medical detective that he was, he couldn’t stop his research before he had found the answer.

Dr Norman Hollenberg

Cacao as wonder drug?

The health differences between the mainland Kuna and their family islanders were shocking. The relative risk of death from heart disease on the Panama mainland was 1,280 percent higher than on the islands and death from cancer was 630 percent higher. 

Hollenberg eliminated in his research other plausible causes as environment and stress and concentrated on the big difference in diet. 

Compared to Kuna Indians living in a suburb of Panama City, those still living on the remote islands were consuming twice as much fruit, four times as much fish, and 10 times as much cacao.

The most outstanding finding was the fact that most of them consume cocoa as their major drink and do so every day. Many Kuna, in that hot and humid climate, probably drink more than five cups per day. Hollenberg reported

So, what is it that makes cacao so special to the Kuna diet? Hollenberg set the tone: “The Kuna are exposed to more cocoa than anyone else on earth, and they are living longer. This could reflect the exposure to flavonoid-rich cocoa, and if it does, then this is the most important observation since anaesthesia.”

Experiments

Hollenberg performed experiments on healthy people, all older than 50 years. he gave them non-alkalised cacao drinks. Blood flow increased dramatically in these elders just the way it did when he did the same type of test on healthy young people.  

In 2007 Hollenberg was part of a panel of scientists organised by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. During a session entitled “The Neurobiology of Chocolate: A Mind-Altering Experience?,”, this panel presented evidence from several recent studies that demonstrated the enhanced brain blood flow after subjects consumed a specially formulated flavonol-rich cocoa beverage that was supplied by Mars, Incorporated.

All studies presented, supported the ideas of Hollenberg. “Our study showed that acute consumption of this particular flavonol-rich cocoa beverage was associated with increased blood flow to grey matter for 2 to 3 hours,” said Ian A. Macdonald of the University of Nottingham. “This raises the possibility that certain food components like cocoa flavonols may be beneficial in increasing brain blood flow and enhancing brain function among older adults or for others in situations where they may be cognitively impaired, such as fatigue or sleep deprivation.”

cocoa pods in Cambodia

Polyphenols, flavonoids, flavonols and catechin

All those studies are pointing in the direction of flavonols. But what are cacao flavonols? They are part of the family of polyphenols, one the main ingredients of cacao. The polyphenol content of whole fermented and dried cocoa beans varies between 3000mg/100g (3%) and 6000mg/100g (6%). 

One of the two general classes of polyphenols is flavonoids. Of these flavonoids, one of the most prominent ones in cocoa beans are flavonols, also called flavon-3-ols. These in their turn consist of epicatechin, catechin, and procyanidins.

Raising the bar

In a study from 2012 called “cocoa polyphenols and their potential benefits for human health”, four scientists raised the (chocolate) bar even further. They confirmed the conclusions of other researchers that the cacao polyphenols had a very strong effect on blood flow. But they even more concentrated on the very strong antioxidant properties of cacao polyphenols.

According to their study, polyphenols have anti-inflammatory activity, especially against IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Diseases). They produce chemo-preventive effects on other chronic diseases such as cancer by inhibiting the growth of various cancer cell lines. Of special interest are the effects of polyphenols on colon cancer. Indeed, the protective effects of polyphenols against IBD prevent it from evolving into cancer. 

cocoa beans cocoa powder

Conclusion 

16th to early 18th century manuscripts produced in Europe and New Spain revealed over 100 medicinal uses for cacao drinks. These practices originated among the Olmec, Maya and the Aztec. Improved bowel function was one of them. The Kuna Indians did nothing more than following the healthy cacao diet of these ancestors, while the rest of the world lost track of cacao as a superfood. 

But luckily the health game changed dramatically in the past 25 years thanks to researchers as Dr. Hollenberg. We now also know that cacao loses a lot of her medicinal properties when it is being processed into chocolate. Nevertheless, chocolate still contains some polyphenols as long as you talk about dark chocolate with at least 50% cacao ingredients. An even better result can be achieved with non-alkalised cacao powder. 

The greatest tribute must go to the Kuna Indians. They triggered the research by Benjamin H. Kean and Norman Hollenberg. They have shown us that a cacao diet might be the ultimate superfood.

Written by Stefan Struik and Chanthol Chean, founders of Kamkav Farm in Mondulkiri, history’s first cacao farm in Cambodia.

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