Cocoa, scientifically known as Theobroma cacao, originated from Peru with three main varieties (Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario) over 2000 years ago. Historically, the Mayans, aside from the health benefits of cocoa, utilized cocoa as food for the gods and as a medium of exchange for slaves. Christopher Columbus introduced cocoa into Europe in the 15th century, while cocoa was introduced into Africa around the 1820s (1). Cocoa cultivation and the revolution in Ghana were led by Tetteh Quashie in 1876 upon returning from Fernando Po, present-day Bioko, after many failed attempts by Dutch missionaries (2).
Cocoa production is a multibillion-dollar sector, and the history of wealth creation in Ghana cannot be told without mentioning the benefits of cocoa. Aside from eating raw or processed beans, the benefits of cocoa include converting waste into poultry and livestock feed, fertilizers, and mulches. The beans can be processed into butter, chocolate, nibs, powder, liquor, soap, pomade, creams and lotions, syrups, and even pharmaceuticals.
An Overview of Natural Cocoa Consumption and Utilization in Ghana
Natural cocoa powder has a light-brown colour and is intensely chocolaty, quite bitter, and naturally acidic, with an extractable pH of 5.3 to 5.8. High-grade natural cocoa powder is prepared industrially by fermenting the beans, followed by drying, bagging, winnowing, roasting, grinding, and pressing to remove the butter for chocolate (4).
Roasted cocoa beans are then pulverized into unsweetened chocolate powder. Even though unsweetened natural cocoa powder is considered healthier, in Ghana, most marketed natural cocoa powder has been sweetened by combining proportionate levels of dairy, sugar, or honey to meet consumer taste and preference (4).
The seeds are highly utilized in Ghana’s chocolate industry. Natural cocoa has been identified as a good source of nontoxic food extracts (nutraceuticals) for the prevention of certain diseases. Getting freshly harvested cocoa to eat is difficult in Ghana unless one comes from any of the cocoa-growing areas. Nonetheless, the Tetteh Quarshie Bar, Vitaco, Choco Delight, and Royal Natural Cocoa Powder are natural cocoa products found on the local market through the efforts of the Cocoa Processing Company Limited of Ghana.
Medicinal potential of Natural Cocoa
Aside from the financial status of cocoa in Ghana, it has been pharmacologically confirmed that cocoa is known to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimalarial, antitumor, antidiabetic and anti-asthmatic properties (6). Ghana remains in the spotlight of this disquisition while the examination of the potential medicinal use of cocoa remains imminent.
Natural cocoa is a good source of minerals, including calcium, copper, magnesium and zinc (7). Based on the nutritional facts, one can say that, to maximize the health benefits of cocoa, we need to consume it in its raw form and not processed. The big question is how many people in Ghana even get to see cocoa in its raw form?
They contain naturally occurring antioxidants that facilitate the body’s mechanisms to reduce inflammation, improve blood circulation, lower blood pressure and improve the body’s blood sugar levels. They also help to reduce insulin resistance and sensitivity among smokers and those with impaired glucose tolerance (7). In a study, the low prevalence of atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension was attributed to regular intake of natural cocoa (8).
Natural cocoa contains phenylethylamine, which induces the release of endorphins and pleasant neurochemicals. Other chemicals include anandamide, which is usually released naturally when two people fall in love or passionately engage in sexual activity. It creates euphoria and boosts libido, which is probably why, contemporarily, chocolate is seen as a token of love. Another benefit is the increase in brain levels of serotonin to restore feelings of well-being, especially in women who experience PMS (premenstrual syndrome) (9).
Empirically, the protective benefits of cocoa flavanols look promising as compared to those of any cardiovascular drugs in the pharmaceutical industry (10). Flavanols are anti-inflammatory, thereby protecting the heart and preventing cardiovascular diseases and stroke (9).
Natural cocoa helps in weight loss due to MAO (monoamine oxidase) inhibitors, which are mostly found in weight loss products that decrease appetite. Natural cocoa powder extracts are more effective in the prevention of cavities than fluoride, thereby helping mitigate oral health, which is a major health burden for most individuals (11).
The pharmaceutical industry currently sees cocoa as a potential alternative for the manufacture of cough syrups instead of codeine. According to researchers from the University of Reading, dark cocoa chocolates could help with the vision of individuals based on the high levels of beneficial flavanols. Professor David Kennedy, Director of brain, performance and nutrition at the research centre of Northumbria University, reported that flavanols in hot cocoa drinks improved the brain activity of individuals to cope better with mathematical equations and problems.
Natural cocoa contains chemicals similar to those of anti-depressant drugs. Overindulging can lead to drowsiness, memory loss, confusion, breathing difficulties, and fatigue. It is likely to trigger likely effects in pregnant women and nursing mothers, posing serious defects to infants. It would be beneficial if the sugar requirements and bitter aftertaste of natural cocoa were improved in the future without destroying the natural composition to meet the tastes and preferences of a wide range of consumers. Natural cocoa is a valuable food product, but it is frequently adulterated with low-cost materials, which can sometimes have toxicological effects on consumers (12). It would be very beneficial if proper food safety and forensic approaches were ensured to clamp down on issues concerning natural cocoa adulteration.
Looking at the state of the cocoa industry in Ghana, firstly, a resolute relationship between key stakeholders in the cocoa supply chain will foster a sustainable industry to effectively manage the challenges from a technological, political and socio-economic point of view. It is highly recommended that better fermentation and roasting practices be introduced in Ghana’s cocoa industry so that the medicinal effects of natural cocoa will be retained even after rigorous industrial processes.
In the future, biotechnological applications involving detailed cellular and molecular mechanisms of the biological and genetic activities of natural cocoa are anticipated. Putting more emphasis on the use of invitro embryogenesis and genetic transformation technologies to help in developing elite genotypes will also benefit the cocoa industry a lot. Finally, rapid forensic support to detect fraud relating to natural cocoa product adulteration will help sustain and protect the cocoa industry from food safety-related challenges.
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