Hot cocoa is a sweet beverage that’s been enjoyed for countless generations by a variety of cultures, especially indigenous peoples of the Americas such as the Aztecs and Mayans. Cocoa powder contains nutrients that stimulate your brain, heart and lungs. Theophylline is a stimulating compound found in cocoa that can be toxic in large amounts. However, it’s only found in trace amounts in commercial cocoa powders and does not represent much of a risk unless you are allergic to it.
Stimulants in Cocoa Beans
Cocoa beans are rich sources of polyphenols, which are compounds that display antioxidant properties, and they contain numerous minerals, vitamins and chemicals that act as stimulants. Specifically, cocoa beans contain caffeine, theobromine and theophylline, which are all related molecules that affect your cardiovascular and central nervous systems, according to the book “Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy.” Stimulating effects include increased heart rate, relaxation of airways and increased production of urine. Cocoa products contain about seven times more theobromine than caffeine and relatively small amounts of theophylline. However, theophylline is much more potent than the other two stimulants.
Theophylline, also known as dimethylxanthine, is structurally similar to caffeine and found in trace amounts in tea leaves, coffee beans and cocoa beans. Of all the types of cocoa beans, the Criollo variety contains the most theophylline, as much as 3.7 milligrams per gram of bean, according to the “Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties.” Theophylline has been refined and made into drugs that are used to treat respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and asthma. Theophylline inhibits the enzyme cAMP phosphodiesterase, which results in the release of hormones that cause stimulatory effects.
Theophylline has stronger effects on breathing and heart rate compared to caffeine. It’s also a stronger diuretic, which makes you urinate more frequently. The main actions of theophylline include relaxing the smooth muscle of airways, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, increasing blood flow through the kidneys and mildly inhibiting inflammatory reactions, according to the book “Human Biochemistry.”
As a therapeutic drug, theophylline causes numerous side effects, so it’s now rarely administered for clinical use. It’s also more toxic than many other drugs used for respiratory diseases. In large amounts, theophylline can cause nausea, diarrhea, arrhythmia, headache, insomnia, irritability and dizziness, according to the “PDR Guide to Drug Interactions, Side Effects and Indications.”
The amount of theophylline in cocoa powder is much less than what’s administered for therapy, so the risks of a negative reaction from drinking hot cocoa is very small. Furthermore, many brands of hot chocolate are not very high in pure cocoa powder. Instead, they are higher in powdered dairy products and refined sugar in order to make the beverage sweeter and more appealing to children. If you are concerned about theophylline levels, buy hot chocolate powder low in pure cocoa.
- Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
- Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties; Canadian Pharmacists Association
- Human Biochemistry; Charles Dreiling
- PDR Guide to Drug Interactions, Side Effects and Indications; PDR Medical Staff