Summary: Cocoa was originally cultivated by ancient societies in Central and South America, where it was consumed as a fermented beverage for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Cocoa and chocolate, its fermented byproduct, are rich in flavanols—potent antioxidants associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Two types of flavanols, called catechins and procyanidins, have been shown in experimental studies to reduce markers of inflammation and angiogenesis, two processes closely linked to cancer development. While more study is required, cocoa and chocolate have significant potential for chemoprevention as a dietary supplement.
Cocoa, the seed of the cocoa tree, is believed to have been cultivated over 3,000 years ago by native inhabitants of Central and Northern South America. These inhabitants prepared cocoa as a fermented beverage, similar to tea, which was used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes, and the beans themselves were used as a form of currency. Spanish explorers brought cocoa back to Spain in the early 1500s, and from there it spread to France, Italy, and eventually to Great Britain. In the middle of the 18th Century, chocolate manufacturing was introduced to Massachusetts using cocoa imported from the West Indies and Central America. Commercial chocolate become available in the mid-19th Century when a London company added sugar to chocolate liquor and cocoa butter.
Chocolate, the fermented byproduct from processed cocoa, contains high levels of bioactive flavanoids (polyphenols) that are formed during the fermentation process. Two flavanoids in particular, catechins and procyanidins, are highly concentrated in dark chocolate and cocoa powder. Observational studies indicate that catechins and procyanidins derived from green tea, red wine and soy may protect against a number of chronic diseases, notably cardiovascular disease and cancer.