We usually think of chocolate as a delicious diet destroying indulgence – and rarely consider its health benefits. It is easy to forget that its key ingredient, cocoa, is a natural product that is packed with active materials that might be very protective for the skin.
Cocoa is made by fermenting and drying the seeds of the cacoa tree. This was the basis of a drink enjoyed by the Aztecs. It was first introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the fifteenth century. Since then new uses for it have continued to be found. We are also still learning about what it contains and what it can do.
Cocoa is rich in antioxidants, richer in fact than red wine or green tea. Work published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2006 concentrated on a group of antioxidants known as flavanols. They showed that a group of women given a flavanol rich cocoa drink showed 15% less reddening of the skin when exposed to UV light.
One possible explanation for this result is that the antioxidant properties of the flavanols give the skin extra protection against free radicals. Free radicals are the reactive forms of oxygen generated when UV light hits the skin. It is well established that the ageing of the skin caused by sunlight is largely the result of damage to the skin’s proteins caused by these free radicals.
I started a discussion on the subject on the Skin Forum on LinkedIn and get a lively debate going. Even the heavyweight academics who contributed weren’t absolutely sure what was going on. One idea was that it was simple screening of the UV – a sort of drinkable UV screen. This seems a bit unlikely. Once we have eaten something the body tends to digest it and deal with it pretty quickly. More interesting was the suggestion that cocoa’s flavanols could act directly on the immune system to make it more effective in tackling the UV damage. Yet another possibility was another constituent of cocoa, theobromin. This is known to act as a vasodilator increasing the flow of blood to the surface of the skin. This increased blood flow could stop the skin drying out in the way it characteristically does when you get sunburnt.
So although we can’t yet be sure how it is working, there does seem to be a good case for applying cocoa to the skin to allieviate sun damage and slow down ageing. Chocolate is simply cocoa dispersed in cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is a very nice ingredient for a skin cream, giving a gliding soft slip as it rubs in. So put both these in a formulation and you have a chocolate cream that is pleasing to use and will help your skin look younger. And you won’t put on any weight.
J Nutr. 2006 Jun;136(6):1565-9. Long-term ingestion of high flavanol cocoa provides photoprotection against UV-induced erythema and improves skin condition in women. Heinrich U, Neukam K, Tronnier H, Sies H, Stahl W.
And thanks to Fire Horse Leo on Flickr for the photo of the cocoa pod. I love the way she has caught the redness of the cocoa fruit.