Cocoa or cacao, when added to coffee, increases concentration and reduces anxiety. But is it also a fat-burning food? New science here.
Is there really such a thing as a fat-burning food? Nutrition experts love to debate that. Listening to them get tangled up in the semantics of the question, you’d need a strong cup of coffee just to keep from nodding off.
Here’s what we do know: Adding cocoa, or more specifically, cacao, to that strong cup of coffee might be the closest thing we have to a true fat-burning food.
We already know that cocoa boosts coffee’s ability to increase your concentration and now it looks like it can help burn fat, too. But that’s only the beginning of the amazing, surprising things cocoa can do.
Back in 2017, researchers had subjects perform a battery of cognitive tests to assess motivation, mood, attention, and error rates (Boolani, et al.). People that used caffeine (from coffee) in conjunction with cocoa experienced less anxiety from the testing and performed better than the subjects in the caffeine-only group, the cocoa-only group, or the placebo groups.
The researchers theorized that the theobromine and polyphenols (flavanols) binded to the adenosine or benzodiazepine receptors, thereby reducing anxiety.
The researchers wrote that “the combination of fatigue-fighting coffee and anxiety-reducing cocoa was the best combination for boosting attention span.” They did caution, though, that this anxiety-reducing phenomenon might take up to 30 days of daily cocoa supplementation to take full effect, possibly because of receptor up-regulation.
So yeah, I wonder why more people aren’t doing this; why Starbucks or even the Love You a Latte Café haven’t adopted short, tall, grande, venti, or trenta-sized “brain enhancer” blends to their menu.
Maybe people don’t care about being more creative. Maybe they like anxiety, or maybe they’re just waiting for a better reason to “pollute” their fine Columbian blend with such a noticeable chocolaty flavor. Well, they may now have a better reason to add cocoa: Two relatively new studies found that regularly ingesting cocoa seems to burn body fat.
To be clear, the two studies I alluded to used plain cocoa (in the form of chocolate); they didn’t add it to coffee. Still, you’d think that anyone wanting to take advantage of the fat-burning effects of cocoa might want to add it to their coffee. It’s a convenient way to kill two biochemical birds (enhanced creativity and fat burning) with one biochemical stone.
Back to the studies. The first (Garcia-Yu, et al, 2020) found that a daily chocolate snack (10 grams of cocoa-rich chocolate) reduced the body fat and body fat percentage of a group of women over a 6-month period. What’s more, no exercise or dieting, or other possible confounding factors were involved. The only thing the women in the test group did that the women in the control group didn’t was enjoy a small, chocolaty treat every day.
Granted, the women in the study were all menopausal, but there’s no reason to think the results wouldn’t work for younger women (or men); that the results were somehow related to them being older and on the low end of the hormonal scale.
The second study (Presler and Webster, 2021) used 18 younger (18-30) exercise-trained females. The subjects received either 20 grams of chocolate (70% cocoa) or a calorically matched portion of white chocolate (which contains no cocoa) every day for 30 days.
Before they started on their chocolaty adventure, each of the women “underwent indirect calorimetry assessment for resting energy expenditure and exercise energy expenditure.” In short, they had to perform steady-state cycling for 20 minutes – 10 minutes at “balls-out” intensity (100 Watts) and 10 minutes at “enjoy the scenery” intensity (50 Watts).
They repeated the testing after 30 days and found that the women in the dark chocolate group had an increased resting energy expenditure (REE) of about 9.6%.
These results beg for future studies on weight control and body comp, but regardless, they strongly hint at cocoa’s power to influence body fat percentage.
Maybe mental sharpness and reduced body fat aren’t enough to make you start adding cocoa to your coffee. Okay, I’ve got more ammo.
Ingesting cocoa powder in the form of chocolate bars has been, in various studies, found to increase testosterone levels (albeit mildly), lead to erections as firm as a frozen Clark Bar, improve gut health, and even grow more muscle by slightly inhibiting myostatin, a protein that interferes with muscle growth.
This is hugely important if you want to try this: You need to find cocoa that hasn’t been exposed to “the Dutch process” or “Dutching.” While it sounds like a natural processing method where Dutch maidens step on cocoa beans while wearing wooden shoes, Dutching involves treating the cocoa bean with alkali.
While it darkens the cocoa, reduces its bitterness, and makes it easier to mix, Dutching substantially reduces the flavanol content, not to mention cocoa’s anti-oxidative efficiency.
While most cocoas have been Dutched, the Ghirardelli company makes an excellent non-Dutched product. Look for it, or other non-Dutched cocoas, in the baking section of the grocery store (not the hot beverage section, which is home to sugared, flavored cocoas used to make hot chocolate).
Here’s where I piss you off. I’ve gone to great lengths to convince you to add cocoa to your coffee, but now, I’m going to tell you to use something else other than cocoa because it’ll work even better than cocoa. It’s cacao, and it’s not the same thing.
Just about everything manufacturers do to a cocoa bean, starting with fermentation and progressing to roasting (and Dutching), reduces phytochemical levels. And it doesn’t always stop there.
Once you take the cocoa home and combine it with baking soda – as you might when you’re making a Grandma Luoma’s Diabetic Coma Chocolate Cake – it starts a chemical reaction that further depletes the cocoa of its beneficial phytochemicals.
So, we need to pick the least processed form of cocoa we can find that qualifies as food. Case in point, we can’t very well use the raw beans because they’re coated with a kind of disgusting mucilage that makes the beans look like a pod of baby banana slugs. No, we need to wait until the beans have been fermented, dried, and cold pressed.
At this point, the product is called “cacao.” As far as processing, it’s still fairly virginal and has retained most of its nutritive qualities. If, however, we continue the processing by roasting the powder at high temperatures, it’s generally referred to as “cocoa.” Dutching adds further insult.
Now, chocolate experts the world over might nitpick over where exactly cacao becomes cocoa, but for our purposes, let’s assume cacao is the raw, unrefined bean, and cocoa refers to the bean after it’s been roasted and chemicalled up.
Bottom line: Use cacao in your coffee. It’s the phytochemical equivalent of Tony Stark upgrading his initial arc reactor heart with the more sophisticated one that was required to power up his more advanced suits.
To supercharge your coffee, add 2-3 grams (about a teaspoon) of cacao. It contains some fat, so it should mix into your coffee fairly well.
It also makes a great, chocolaty addition to your protein shake (on Amazon), yogurt, cereal milk, or anything else you might want to jazz up.
Unroasted and cold-pressed cacao, while not common, is still pretty easy to find. Amazon offers the Navitas (on Amazon) brand of organic cacao for well under 10 bucks.
You can also buy chocolate-bar type products that are made with cacao instead of cocoa. Alternately, you can find cacao “nibs” (small pieces of crushed beans) that you can use in the same way as you might the powder.
- Boolani A et al. Acute effects of brewed cocoa consumption on attention, motivation to perform cognitive work and feelings of anxiety, energy and fatigue: a randomized, placebo-controlled crossover experiment. BMC. 13 January 2017.
- Garcia-Yu IA et al. Cocoa-rich chocolate and body composition in postmenopausal women. A randomized clinical trial. Br J Nutr. 2021 Mar 14;125(5):548-556. PubMed.
- Presler KM et al. Dark Chocolate Supplementation Elevates Resting Energy Expenditure in Exercise Trained Females. Int J Exerc Sci. 2021 Apr 1;14(2):250-259. eCollection 2021. PuMed.
- Hurst WJ et al. Impact of fermentation, drying, roasting and Dutch processing on flavan-3-ol stereochemistry in cacao beans and cocoa ingredients. Chem Cent J. 2011 Sep 14;5:53. PubMed.
- Gutierrez-Salmean G et al. Effects of (-)-epicatechin on molecular modulators of skeletal muscle growth and differentiation. J Nutr Biochem. 2014 Jan;25(1):91-4. PubMed.
- Effect of Treating Cocoa with Alkali: The Dutching Process. Life Extension News. 2013 Jan;16(1).
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