February is here and there's no better time to think about your heart health than now.  Not only is it Valentine's Day, but it's also the Heart and Stroke Foundation's Heart Month.  While there's no shortage of chocolate products gracing the store shelves in preparation for Valentine's Day - this month we're digging a little deeper and going straight to the source to highlight the health benefits of cocoa.


Nutrition Notes

Cocoa is the dried seed from the cacao tree and is an outstanding source of antioxidants that have been linked to heart health. 

Cocoa is most commonly used to make chocolate.  While dark chocolate is quickly establishing itself as a health food, it's actually the cocoa content of dark chocolate that's responsible for its touted health benefits. Reaping the health benefits of dark chocolate's antioxidants comes with few extra calories and fat.  Cocoa, on the other hand, is a concentrated source of antioxidants and, as such, offers a heftier dose of disease fighting compounds without a surplus of calories.

The antioxidant content of cocoa is due to the presence of flavonoids, natural compounds with disease fighting properties.  Epicatechin, a powerful flavonoid found in cocoa, is becoming well known for its beneficial effect on cardiovascular health.

Studies have shown that the flavonoids in cocoa stimulate the production of nitric oxide in the body, which in turn can help relax blood vessels, leading to lower blood pressure and improved heart health.  In fact, a 15-year study from Dutch researchers discovered that elderly men who regularly consumed cocoa had lower blood pressure and were overall less likely to die from cardiovascular disease compared to men who didn't consume cocoa.  Men with the highest intake of cocoa were half as likely to die from cardiovascular disease.

Research suggests that cocoa's antioxidants trump that of other well-known sources of theses disease fighting compounds.  Findings from Cornell University found that a cup of cocoa had twice as many antioxidants as red wine and three times more than green tea.

Aside from its antioxidant content, cocoa also contains magnesium, iron, chromium, vitamin C and zinc.  Standard cocoa powder has a fat content of approximately 10 to 12 percent.

Here's how unsweetened cocoa powder stacks up in terms of its nutrient content.

Per 1 tablespoon (15 ml) unsweetened cocoa powder:

Calories 12 kcal 
Total Fat 0.7 g
   Saturated Fat    0.4 g
   Monousaturated Fat    0.3 g
   Polyunsaturated Fat    0.02 g
Protein 1 g
Carbohydrate 2.9 g
Sugar 0.1 g
Fiber 1.8 g 
Caffeine  13 mg
Magnesium 27 mg
Iron 0.8 mg

(Source: Canadian Nutrient File, 2007b)


When cocoa beans are processed the first product is cocoa paste, which can be used to make chocolate.  If cocoa paste is further processed and separated, the final product is cocoa butter and cocoa solids, which are used to make cocoa powder.

Cocoa butter is used in chocolate products as well as pharmaceuticals, toiletries and ointments. 

Cocoa powder, on the other hand, is often used in baked goods and imparts a deep reddish brown colour and rich chocolate flavour.  It's available in two forms: natural and Dutch-processed (alkalized) - both of which are unsweetened.

Dutch processed cocoa powder is treated with an alkali to neutralize the natural acidity of the product.  Because it is neutral, Dutch processed cocoa must be used in recipes that call for baking powder.  It has a mild flavour, dissolves easily in liquids, and is a reddish-brown colour.  Dutch processed cocoa is best used in cakes and pastries and products where its delicate flavour can compliment other ingredients.

Natural cocoa powder tastes very bitter and has a deep brown colour.  Due to its natural acidity, when combined with baking soda, natural unsweetened cocoa creates a leavening action that causes the batter of baked goods to rise. Its intense flavour is best suited for brownies, cookies and some chocolate cakes.

Due to the chemical differences between natural and Dutch processed cocoa, it's imperative that you use the correct type of cocoa specified in the recipe.

Aside from natural and Dutch processed cocoa, there are a few other varieties of cocoa powder to choose from.  The difference between the varieties is a result of the growing conditions and type of tree the cocoa pods are from.  Some of the more popular varieties include criollo, forastero and trinitario and differ in their taste, texture and fat content.


The most important thing to keep in mind when purchasing cocoa powder is to buy the correct form. Read recipes carefully and determine what form of cocoa powder is called for (natural or Dutch processed).

Most cocoa powder is available in sealed containers in the baking section of major grocery stores.  Cocoa powder is also available from bulk stores - but as always, be sure the product has a high turnover and is free from any moisture (visible as clumps).  Specialty food stores are more likely to carry different varieties of cocoa.


Due to its natural fat content, cocoa powder should be stored in a cool, dark tightly sealed container that's free of moisture.  If you e going to be storing cocoa powder for a long period of time (i.e. greater than 12 months), store it in a sealed container in the freezer to maintain freshness.


Cocoa doesn't require any preparation and can be added directly to a variety of recipes and dishes.


While cocoa may conjure thoughts of warm hot chocolate or oven fresh brownies, its versatility is actually quite surprising.  Cocoa can be used not only in sweet dishes, but savoury dishes as well. 

And remember a little goes a long way - adding just a tablespoon or two to a recipe will give the dish a rich chocolate colour and decadent taste.

Healthy ways to enjoy:


  • Give your morning latte a hint of chocolate flavour by sprinkling a teaspoon (5 ml) of Dutch-processed cocoa on top.
  • For a variation on your favourite pancake or waffle recipe - try adding one to two tablespoons (15 or 25 ml) of Dutch-processed cocoa for a chocolate twist.


  • Enjoy a calcium-rich chocolaty smoothie - combine one banana, 1/2 cup silken tofu, 1/2 cup low fat milk (or fortified soy beverage), 1 tablespoon Dutch processed cocoa and 1 tablespoon honey, blend until smooth.


  • Add a couple of tablespoons (25 ml) of natural cocoa powder to your favourite chili recipe - it'll add a rich flavour that'll have your guests guessing the secret ingredient.
  • Use natural cocoa as an ingredient in a tasty marinade.  Combine 2 tablespoons (25 ml) each of natural cocoa powder, canola oil and cilantro.  Combine with the juice of 2 limes, 1 tbsp (15 ml) sugar and 1/2 cup (125 ml) of salsa and use to marinade white fish or chicken.


  • Use natural cocoa powder to add a rich chocolate flavour to baked goods, including brownies, cookies and chocolate cake.
  • Warm up with a low fat hot chocolate - combine 1 cup (250 ml) low fat milk (or fortified soy beverage), 1 tablespoon (15 ml) Dutch processed cocoa and 1 tsp (5 ml) of sugar for a tasty beverage.

More Information


Cooking Light

Joy of Baking

Did you know?

Researchers from Harvard Medical School studied the Kuna Indians in Panama and discovered that people living on islands where cocoa was grown and consumed had significantly lower rates of heart disease