I read your piece “Preventing COVID 19 infection” last week. I found it heartening to learn that our own cocoa can boost the immune system and protect us from infection. Anytime you mention cocoa, what comes to my mind is confectionery (I believe this applies to many others). It appears from your piece that there is more to this precious resource of the country.

Yes, cocoa is best known for its derived products, especially chocolates, rather than in its original botanical form i.e. fruits and beans. These products are consumed in great demand worldwide due to its unique flavour and aroma that cannot be replaced by other plant products. But the health benefits of cocoa are receiving attention lately. This applies to the polyphenol-rich cocoa, that is the pure cocoa powder or the dark chocolate with a minimum of 70% cocoa solids.

In recent years enormous research has been focused into cocoa polyphenols, especially the flavonoids, and its function as potent antioxidant in human health. Cocoa is a very rich source of dietary flavonoids and reported of having higher flavonoids per serving than teas and red wine. Some of the beneficial effects of polyphenols have been reported- anti-carcinogenic, anti-atherogenic, anti-ulcer, anti-thrombotic, anti-inflammatory, immune modulating, anti-microbial, vasodilatory and analgesic effects (Hii et all. Polyphenols in Cocoa. Asian Journal of Food and Agro-Industry 2009, 2(04), 702-722 ISSN 1906-3040 Available online at www.ajofai.info. 

The truth is that cocoa as medicinal supplement is mentioned in some historical texts such as in the Badianus Manuscript, Florentine Codex and Princeton Codex. These texts mention some 150 uses of cocoa for medical treatments. In the North America, medicinal use of chocolate could be dated back to the 16th century. Chocolate was used as ‘patients’ diet’ in the 19th century in the United States and it was not until after the 1930s, the consumption of chocolate shifted from medicinal to confectionery probably due to the increased amounts of substitutes. The research on flavonoids and other polyphenols has been enhanced by the advancement of analytical and instrumentation techniques. 

As related in previous pieces, cocoa is a complete food on its own- a regimen to fall on especially in areas facing restrictions as a result of the COVID 19 menace. It has adequate amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fiber, vitamins and trace minerals. Cocoa provides a nutrition without the untoward effect of weight gain- again a benefit in times of restrictions where you may not want to hit the road in any vigorous activity as used to do within this limited period. Cocoa is a rich source of polyphenols- the major effect of the health benefits of cocoa. Single servings of cocoa and cocoa products contain more phenolic antioxidants than most foods. Cocoa contains a number of polyphenolic compounds, but it is particularly rich in flavonoids—specifically, flavanols, also called flavan-3-ols. In addition to polyphenols, cocoa contains methylxanthine compounds—predominantly theobromine—about 2% to 3% by weight. Caffeine is also present in small amounts (0.2%). Theobromine has antioxidant activity similar to caffeine and relatively little stimulating effect on the central nervous system and therefore more tolerable by most people.

Immune system function is closely related to human health. Therefore, the pathogeneses of many human diseases involve immune function. This link has led to extensive experimental studies of immune mechanisms in many pathological contexts. Immune dysfunction has many unforeseen consequences. Immune dysfunction, for example, in the intestinal mucosa triggers diarrhoea in the host and can negatively influence the balance of the intestinal microflora. Accordingly, functional foods, defined as those providing specific nutrition or targeting multiple functional components, are considered a form of preventive medicine. Polyphenols are well-known, pharmacologically active compounds with immunomodulatory activity.  Current evidence strongly suggests that polyphenols contribute to the prevention of several immune diseases. Cocoa has a potent antioxidant capacity, as compared with other products, related to flavonoid content]. In addition to their potent antioxidant characteristic, cocoa polyphenols were shown to possess remarkable anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is the response of tissues to an aggression caused by pathogens, chemicals or wounding. Inflammation involves a complex network of reactions initially designed to protect the body from injury and to heal damaged tissue. The activation and migration of some factors (leukocytes) to the site of the lesion and subsequent release of others (e.g.  growth factors, cytokines, reactive oxygen species (ROS), and nitric oxide) are known to play a crucial role in the inflammatory response. Constant overproduction of pro-inflammatory molecules leads to chronic inflammation. The flavonoids present in cocoa decreased the production of inflammatory factors. In a study in a healthy population, the regular intake of dark chocolate was inversely associated to serum C-reactive protein level- a marker of inflammation.

Polyphenols-rich cocoa has many beneficial effects on human health, such as anti-inflammatory effects. Macrophages function as control switches of the immune system, maintaining the balance between pro- and anti-inflammatory activities (Dugo et al. Effect of Cocoa Polyphenolic Extract on Macrophage Polarization from Proinflammatory M1 to Anti-Inflammatory M2 State. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity / 2017 / Article. Volume 2017 |Article ID 6293740 | 11 pages | https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/6293740.

Polyphenol-rich cocoa is able to influence these factors to function at the desired levels without untoward effects on the body. Neutrophils also play an important role during inflammation. It has been demonstrated that cocoa has the potential to positively influence the neutrophil inflammatory activity. In this sense, certain flavanols and procyanidins isolated from cocoa moderated some signaling pathways involved in these effects particularly those of oxidative bursts and activation markers. 

As I related to a colleague recently COVID 19 will pass but others may follow. Just take a look at the various viral infections and deaths- SARS-CoV 2003, 774 deaths, MERS-CoV 2012, over 400 deaths, MERS-CoV 2015, 36 deaths, Mers-CoV 2018, 41 deaths, and now COVID 19-still counting the costs. The need for daily intake of functional foods such as cocoa to boost our immune system and protect us from infections is critical to all.




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