Cocoa and the Kuna indians

August 15, 2015 - By 



Cocoa and the Kuna Indians

“What got me turned onto the Kuna in the first place was twenty years of Harvard University studies showing that the Kuna have among the lowest rates of cardiovascular vascular disease in the world, even though they’re poor, have lousy sanitation and hygiene, no access to medicine… and yet, they have this remarkably low incident of heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure: and they consume four to five cups of cocoa a piece, every single day.”

Chris Kilham, ABC Good Morning America

Was it a gene?

Norman Hollenberg, a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School had a fascination with cocoa which started with a quest to find a solution to age related rising blood pressure. His initial target was genes, more specifically the possibility that “good genes” might be what was protecting some people from high blood pressure. Then he heard of the Kuna Indians. The Kuna live on islands off the coast of Panama and because of this relative isolation were relatively interbred. High blood pressure was almost unknown among the Kuna.

This excited Hollenberg because it presented the possibility that the Kuna might share a “good gene” that was protecting them from high blood pressure. This turned out not to be the case when Hollenberg discovered that Kuna Indians who had moved to Panama quickly showed hypertension typical of other residents of Panama. So the secret was not in their genes.



They do drink a lot of cocoa

Hollenberg started looking for environmental and lifestyle factors which might be responsible for the immunity from age related hypertension enjoyed by the islanders. Nothing really presented itself as an obvious candidate except for the fact that the Kuna drink large amounts of cocoa, many drinking more than 5 cups a day.

Hollenberg was aware of the high flavanol content of cocoa and the circulatory benefits of flavanols. He collected samples of the cocoa typically used on the island and had it analysed by Mars. The results showed high flavanol content which was attributed to the very simple way the Kuna cocoa was processed post harvest. Cocoa consumed in developed societies is subjected to intense processing to improve appearance and cater to western tastes. Flavanols are inherently fragile and easily destroyed during post harvest handling and processing.


Nitric oxide

Another surprise that came out of tests on the Kuna cocoa was the fact that it appeared to stimulate the production of nitric oxide by the body. Despite nitric oxides bad reputation in the context of cigarettes and automobile exhaust, when produced by the human body it performs some very useful and vital functions –

“It turns out to be part of an internal regulatory system that operates in the heart, blood vessels, brain, penis, liver, pancreas, lungs, eyes, and likely every other organ in the body,” says Thomas Michel, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who was one of the first to recognize the wonders of NO. “It is a versatile gas that could lead to new treatments for high blood pressure, blocked arteries, congestive heart failure, stroke, dementia, and impotence.”

Nitric oxide has the unique ability to relaxes blood vessels to allow an increased flow of blood and oxygen to the heart, brain, and other organs of the body. Hollenberg thinks that flavanols may activate a gene or genes that make nitric oxide.

Kuna who keep drinking cocoa in their home islands enjoy much lower death rates from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and cancer than those who move away from the islands and their cocoa.



How most cocoa is processed

Cocoa beans are the seed of the berry-like fruit of the cacao tree.

– The shells are removed from the beans mechanically, leaving just the cocoa nibs.

– The nibs are blended with other varieties and milled to create a suspension of cocoa particles in cocoa butter (cocoa liquor). The milling process involves temperature and mount of milling varies according to the type of nib used and the required product. Damage is done to the flavanols in this process.

– The cocoa liquor is pressed to extract the cocoa butter and leaves a solid mass called cocoa presscake. Some butter is not pressed out and left in the presscake. Most of the remaining flavanols are in the presscake.

– The presscake then undergoes a process called alkalisation (or Dutching), to develop the flavour and colour. Cocoa flavanols are extremely bitter tasting and the Dutching process was primarily designed to reduce this bitterness. The process destroys up to 80% of the flavanols. The cocoa presscake is pulverised to form cocoa powder.

– The cocoa butter is used in the manufacture of chocolate. Cocoa powder is added in this process.

– The damage to flavanols occurs throughout the above processes. The amount of damage can be controlled by ‘gentler’ processing but significant flavanol loss still occurs. The addition of supplementary ingredients to the cocoa butter to make chocolate, further dilutes the flavanol content.

– The irony here is that chocolate can contain a very high percentage of cocoa but very few flavanols because they have been destroyed principally during the alkalisation process.

– The Kuna Indians drink largely homegrown, unprocessed cocoa powder, containing very high flavanol levels.

Cocoallegro cocoa flavanols are extracted from the raw cocoa nibs before any processing is done.


Please share

If you would like to buy Cocoa Flavanol concentrate please visit our shop

Posted In:  Uncategorized