Benefits of Cocoa Flavanols: Dismantling the Hype
The health benefits of cocoa have captured the attention of health experts, nutritionists, and medical professionals worldwide in the last year. Recent scientific insights into the properties of flavanols, a group of naturally-occurring compounds found in cocoa beans, have led researchers worldwide to conclude that they have a wide range of health-enhancing abilities.
The last year has seen an explosion in the coverage of cocoa flavanol health benefits from medical journals, health news sites and mainstream media. News networks such as Forbes have covered the fat burning, weight loss promoting abilities of cocoa flavanols, while Time has provided readers with an insight into the results of clinical trials that have demonstrated the ability of cocoa flavanols to reduce the risk of heart and cardiovascular disease.
The potential health applications of cocoa flavanols are varied and extensive. Research indicates that flavanols have powerful antioxidant properties, are able to boost memory and recall function, improve cardiovascular and circulatory health, and even reverse the effects of age on the body. A slew of clinical trials have provided sweet-toothed consumers worldwide with welcome news: eating chocolate may actually be good for you.
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In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most popular research publications, scientific studies, news, and expert opinions on cocoa flavanols to cut through the hype and find out exactly how healthy they are.
Cocoa & Cacao: What’s the Difference?
Before we begin our analysis of the potential health benefits of cocoa flavanols, it’s important to make a clear distinction between cocoa and cacao, two similarly-spelled but often-confused ingredients that are used in food and health products. The difference between the two ingredients is made more confusing by the fact that they are sourced from the same plant- the Theobroma cacao tree, which is common throughout South America and West Africa.
Cacao refers to the large green pods of the cacao tree. When harvested, these pods yield cacao beans, which are often blended into cacao butter, a popular substance used in many applications from cooking to topical cosmetic treatments. Cocoa is simply processed cacao beans that have been subjected to high temperatures and ground up, creating the commonly-used powdered form of cocoa that is used in chocolate making and is widely available in grocery stores.
Both raw cacao and processed cocoa powder possess an extremely high flavanol content, although raw cacao is more popular with holistic and natural health movements due to its lack of added sugar, preservatives and other synthetic elements. In this article, we’ll refer to the product of the cacao plant as cocoa, but it’s fine to regard both cocoa and cacao interchangeable when considering the health applications of cocoa flavanols.
Most of us are familiar with cocoa in the form of chocolate. Derived from the ancient Aztec word “Xocolatl”, which roughly translates to “bitter water”, cocoa has been used in traditional South American medicine systems for thousands of years to promote wakefulness, cure digestive issues, act as a remedy for health conditions such as jaundice and gout, as well as a wide range of other medicinal properties.
After arriving in Europe in the 16th century, sugared cocoa became popular, with the solid form of chocolate that is common today created in the early 19th century. Today chocolate and cocoa products are some of the most popular foodstuffs in the world, with at least 7 million metric tonnes of chocolate consumed globally every year.
What Are Cocoa Flavanols?
Flavanols, the health-promoting compounds that are responsible for the recent cocoa health craze, are part of a family of naturally-occurring chemical compounds called flavonoids. Commonly found in richly-colored plants and vegetable matter, flavonoids, and by extension, flavanols, are potent antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents and immune-system enhancing phytonutrients.
Cocoa flavanols are unique flavonoids that are only found in the beans of the cacao plant. These unique flavanols have a powerful effect on the human body, which have been uncovered by modern medical insights to deliver a number of beneficial effects when consumed regularly. Many health articles have touted the ability of cocoa flavanols to increase libido, protect the body against tumors, lower bad cholesterol levels, boost brain function, and even help regular chocolate eaters live longer.
Hundreds of clinical studies into the health effects of cocoa flavanols have been published in recent years that have captured the attention of international media outlets. Medical news sites have presented information on the ability of cocoa flavanols to balance blood sugar levels and function as a preventative measure against diabetes.
Chocolate manufacturer juggernaut Mars has even recently announced a five-year joint research venture with Harvard University aimed at uncovering the science behind the health benefits of cocoa in response to the increased interest in the link between chocolate and health. Despite the growing body of evidence that cocoa flavanols can improve your health, however, many news sites are quick to point out that chocolate and sweetened cocoa products are only beneficial as an occasional treat.
All of this positive press linking chocolate to improved health has many people scratching their heads. The high sugar and fat content of chocolate has traditionally been linked to weight gain, poor skin health and even health conditions such as diabetes when consumed in large amounts. Just how much chocolate is too much? What kind of chocolate can improve health? To answer these questions, we’ll need to take a look at the scientific evidence that supports the claims made about cocoa flavanols and how they affect your body.
We've known for a long time that chocolate is good for you – in some cultures chocolate was the ‘food of the gods', but the modern day question has been what type of ‘micro-quality' has been put into producing and manufacturing it for end user consumption. The main problem with chocolate and cocoa powder is that it’s often surrounded by sugars, fats, and other unhealthy compounds.
Thanks to new food technologies and over 140+ scientifically researched studies by Mars and Flaviola, Cocoa Flavanols – which are the active health-promoting ingredients in chocolate – are easier to access than ever before.
Food manufacturers are starting to release products that have purified the benefits of cocoa flavanols while leaving the unhealthy parts of traditional chocolate out. That means you can enjoy the taste of chocolate and all the health benefits at the same time.
To understand what cocoa flavanols are and their increasingly bright health portfolio towards improving overall vascular function, we have to talk about flavonoids. Flavonoids are a class of naturally-occurring compounds found within foods like fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods.
Flavanols – like cocoa flavonols – are a distinct group of chemical compounds found within the flavonoid family. The most prominent flavanols in the world today come from the flavonoids in tea, red wine, and cocoa.
Cocoa flavanols are classed as phytonutrients. They’re unique because they can only be found in the cocoa bean.
The cocoa beans themselves come from the fruit of the tree, Theobroma cacao, which grows naturally in subtropical regions of the world. Theobroma actually means “food of the goods”.
Are Cocoa Flavanols Healthy?
Most of the health benefits of cocoa flavanols revolve around the ability of these flavanols to positively influence the body’s cardiovascular system. Cocoa flavanols do this by keeping blood vessels healthy and by supporting good circulation.
Cocoa flavanols help support healthy circulation by encouraging your arteries to stay flexible as they age. Your body’s circulatory system delivers oxygen and nutrients wherever they need to go within the body. When the blood vessels and arteries in this system are flexible, it helps your body deliver those benefits exactly where they need to go.
Unlike with other natural compounds, there have been a number of studies reinforcing the cardiovascular benefits of cocoa flavanols. Check out the dozens of references at the bottom of this article to learn more about some of the studies that have been done on flavanols and flavonoids.
Many of those studies reveal that cacao works by raising nitric oxide levels within the body. Nitric oxide widens blood vessels, lowering your blood pressure.
At the same time, cocoa flavanols work as antioxidants, which means they target free radicals within your blood stream. This can reduce your risk of disease.
In addition to containing flavanols, cacao beans contain a significant amount of the xanthine theobromine (1.2% by weight). Cacao beans also contain nearly 400 other identified compounds – in future studies, we may learn more about the health benefits of cocoa flavanols.
Cocoa Flavanols Improve Circulatory & Cardiovascular Health
The most commonly touted health-improving property of cocoa flavanols is their ability to improve cardiovascular, circulatory and heart health. Various health news networks have published articles on new research that links cocoa flavanols to improved cardiometabolic health, or linked readers to studies that show that chocolate offers cardioprotective properties.
Innovative herbal supplement manufacturers have even begun to develop “chocolate pills” that boost cardiovascular function with cacao plant extracts. The cardiovascular benefits of cocoa flavanols can be broken down into three primary functions; overall heart health, which is improved by enhancing circulatory function, blood pressure management, and a protective function that minimizes the risk of kidney disease induced cardiovascular disease. Let’s break these three benefits down and assess the science supporting them:
1. Cocoa Flavanols Promote Heart Health
One of the most powerful properties of cocoa flavanols is their ability to enhance the overall health of the heart and cardiovascular system. Most heart disorders are caused by systemic cardiovascular illnesses that strain the body. One popular study that has been quoted by many news articles is a 2016 clinical trial performed by the University of Dusseldorf.
In the trial, which was a joint effort between the Division of Cardiology, Pulmonology and Vascular Medicine of the University and chocolate manufacturer Mars, patients were given a 450 mg dose of cocoa flavanols twice daily for one month while their blood pressure, cholesterol, and other cardiovascular system indicators were monitored. The study concluded that flavanols are able to effectively minimize heart dysfunction and improve overall cardiovascular function in demographics at high risk of heart disease.
Another heart-health related study on the health benefits of flavanols that gathered a large amount of media attention assessed the effect of cocoa flavanols on cholesterol levels and insulin sensitivity. The trial, which was published in the Journal of Nutrition, assessed the health levels of over 1000 volunteers taking a daily dose of cocoa-derived flavanols. The result indicated that cocoa flavanols are able to lower cholesterol levels and minimize systemic inflammation, both of which are key indicators for heart disease.
The heart health improving properties of cocoa flavanols seem to be linked to an interaction between the cocoa flavanol content of cocoa-derived products and another family of organic compounds found in cocoa called Methylxanthines. A collaborative study between German and American researchers published in 2016 gathered media attention due to an observation made by the research team that the cardioprotective properties of cocoa flavanols may be a synergistic mechanism delivered by interactions between the two elements.
The study, which consisted of four separate clinical trials performed between 2011 and 2014 provided participants with a range of supplements that contained varying amounts of both flavanols and methylxanthines. The study provided compelling evidence that methylxanthines allow the body to absorb cocoa flavanols more efficiently, enhancing the overall cardioprotective properties of cocoa products.
Another theory put forth by researchers indicates that the antioxidant properties of cocoa flavanols may be able to reduce the overall inflammatory strain on the heart. Antioxidants are elements that are able to neutralize unstable molecules in the body known as free radicals that cause damage as they cause a cascade of imbalance. This cascade, known as oxidative stress, can lead to inflammation and heart disease, so by providing the body with a greater amount of antioxidants, cocoa flavanols may function as a cardioprotective solution.
2. Cocoa Flavanols Can Decrease Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is intrinsically linked to both cardiovascular health and the risk of developing heart disease. According to statistics released by the US Center for Disease Control, roughly one in three adults suffer from high blood pressure, a condition that can lead to heart attack, stroke, and kidney disease. More than 360,000 deaths occur in the United States every year due to high blood pressure, with more than 70% of all first heart attacks caused by high blood pressure.
The same study performed in 2016 by the Dusseldorf University research team gained media attention from various medical news sites due to the link it demonstrated between cocoa flavanol supplementation and lowered blood pressure. The research provided by the University indicates that a 30 day period of supplementation with flavanol-rich cocoa beverages is able to dramatically reduce blood pressure and enhance overall blood vessel function.
This trial is supported by a number of other conclusive clinical trials, notably an earlier 2011 study performed by both the University of Buenos Aires and the University of California. The trial, which observed the effects of cocoa-derived flavanols on nitric oxide levels in the body, demonstrated that cocoa flavanols are able to function as vasodilators, or agents that relax the blood vessels of the body, thus lowering blood pressure.
3. Cocoa Flavanols Can Improve the Health of Kidney Disease Patients
Cocoa flavanols have also been shown to minimize the symptoms and health risks caused by a number of diseases, including kidney disease. Kidney disease is strongly linked to heart health, with sufferers of chronic kidney disease at a far higher risk of developing heart disease than otherwise healthy individuals. Cocoa-derived flavanols have captured media attention for their ability to both minimize blood pressure levels specifically in kidney disease patients as well as reduce their overall risk of experiencing a heart attack.
Cocoa flavanols are so effective in treating kidney disease that they have been referred to as a “magic potion” in treating kidney disease induced cardiovascular disorders. A 2015 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition demonstrated that cocoa flavanols deliver a broad spectrum of kidney-related health benefits, including decreased vascular stiffness and lowered cholesterol levels.
Cocoa Flavanols Improve Memory & Cognitive Function
Flavanols have also gathered a significant amount of attention due to their ability to increase mental function, brain health and prevent neurodegenerative diseases. The China Post recently published a lengthy article detailing the applications of flavanols in sharpening concentration and boosting cognitive function, while the Daily Mail published a similar article on the ability of flavanols to decrease the risk of developing dementia by increasing blood flow to the brain.
The media hype supporting the use of cocoa flavanols to increase brain function has a large body of scientific evidence behind it. A 2009 clinical study performed by the University of Reading found that the flavanols present in cocoa products possess a number of neuroprotective properties, including the ability to reduce neuroinflammation, inhibit the degradation of brain tissue, modulate neurotransmitters critical in memory and learning, as well as protect the brain from neurotoxins.
Another study published by the same research team one year earlier in 2008 suggested that flavonoids, and by extension the flavanols found in cocoa products, are able to modulate gene expression and activate protein kinase pathways to exert a beneficial effect on both the central nervous system and the tissue of the brain. These advances in understanding the potential health applications of flavanols in mental health have led to the development of a number of pharmaceutical supplements.
One such supplement is already commercially available. A new health supplement developed by Cambridge Nutraceuticals in the UK is offering consumers a cocoa flavanol-enriched daily supplement called BloodFlow+ that leverages the cardioprotective and neuroprotective properties of cocoa flavanols to help maintain both physical and mental health in seniors. Let’s take a look at some of the ways Cocoa Flavanols can improve brain health:
1. Cocoa Flavanols Can Improve Brain Function
There are a number of factors that cause impaired brain function. Poor cardiovascular function can lead to a low amount of oxygen-rich blood reaching the brain, causing a loss in executive function, while oxidative stress and an abundance of free radicals in the body can also damage the brain and reduce overall efficiency. Cocoa flavanols have caught attention lately for their ability to act as pseudo-nootropics, increasing the efficiency of the brain.
A study published in 2013 demonstrated that flavanols derived from cocoa products are able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier, interacting with neurotransmitters in the brain to deliver a net positive effect. The study determined that flavonoids have a cerebrovascular function, increasing the amount of blood available to the brain and even offering protection from neurodegenerative diseases such as alzheimer's disease.
A meta-analysis of over 70 different peer-reviewed clinical trials performed in 2009 by a research team at the University of Reading in the UK found that while scientific inquiry into the cognitive effects of flavonoids is in the early stages, cocoa-derived flavanols are able to offer significant enhancement to executive cognitive functions such as working memory and processing speed. From the data available today, it’s safe to say that flavanol consumption, whether from flavanol-rich chocolate or from raw cacao products, can definitely make you smarter.
2. Cocoa Flavanols Reverse Memory Loss & Protect Against Dementia
Memory loss is a common condition that affects almost everybody at some stage in their life. Most commonly associated with the degradation of brain tissue due to age, memory loss can range from mild lapses in short term memory to severe and life-impacting conditions such as alzheimer's disease.
Alzheimer's disease, characterized by a generalized degradation of the brain that severely impairs memory function, affects 5.1 million people in the US, with the risk of developing this debilitating condition doubling every five years past the age of 65. Cocoa flavanols have recently been discovered to protect the brain from all kinds of memory loss, including alzheimer's, by reversing the age of the brain.
The specific interaction between cocoa flavanols and brain tissue has been a major news topic in recent years. Studies that have captured the attention of media organizations across America have demonstrated that flavanols are able to improve the condition of the brain by up to several decades, restoring the tissue of the brain to a younger state. Researchers involved in the investigation, however, state that the amount of flavanols required to gain a significant amount of benefits are far more than are available in chocolate, however, and would typically require a flavanol supplement.
3. Cocoa Flavanols Increase Memory Speed
One of the more interesting interactions between cocoa flavanols and the mind is their ability to increase the rate at which the brain is able to recall memories. A study published in 2014 by the Columbia University Medical Center captured the attention of the media when their clinical trial demonstrated that cocoa flavanol supplements are able to deliver improved performance in pattern recognition tasks and recall tasks. Another study published in Nature Neuroscience in the same year found that a diet high in cocoa flavanols is able to improve memory function in seniors with memory issues, improving the health of the regions of the brain associated with memory function.
While the perspective offered by the media seems to point to chocolate as a brain-boosting health supplement, it’s important to remember that the clinical trials that provided the data in these experiments were performed with flavanol-rich supplements, and not with chocolate. Simply consuming more chocolate probably won’t deliver a great deal of protection for neurodegenerative disorders or give you a significant boost to mental function, but increasing your flavanol consumption with flavanol-rich foods and supplements definitely has a positive effect on brain health.
Cocoa Flavanols Promote Weight Loss & Boost Metabolism
“Lose Weight By Eating Chocolate” is a common sensational news article title that has been thrown around by many media outlets on slow news days over the last few years, promising readers the ability to slim down by consuming one of the foods most likely to contribute to excessive weight gain. Common sense would dictate that chocolate, with its high sugar and fat content, is not the ideal health food supplement to consume while you’re seeking to lose weight.
Scientific inquiry into the applications of flavanols derived from cocoa, however, provides some counter-intuitive results. It seems that cocoa flavanols actually possess the ability to lower cholesterol levels and prevent obesity when consumed in a healthy fashion and even minimize food cravings if used correctly. Let’s take a look at the evidence that supports the use of cocoa flavanols as weight-management supplements:
1: Cocoa Flavanols Can Reduce Bad Cholesterol
High cholesterol levels are linked to unhealthy BMI’s and increased obesity rates. Cholesterol is a form of fat that is found in the bloodstream, and when levels of “bad” cholesterol get too high, it can from a plaque that builds up in the blood vessels of the body which can cause heart attacks. According to statistics released by the CDC, over 35% of the population of the United States have a high level of LDL cholesterol, which can lead to increased risk of heart disease, requiring bypass surgery or angioplasty.
Cocoa flavanols are able to lower the levels of LDL cholesterol in the body. More than 10 different clinical trials have provided conclusive evidence that flavanols deliver a positive effect on LDL cholesterol regulation, minimizing the risk of developing heart disease and improving overall cardiovascular health.
2. Cocoa Flavanols Promote Faster Fat Loss & Prevent Obesity
Paradoxically, the same flavanols that are found in chocolate are actually able to prevent obesity and even induce a metabolic state that can speed up the rate at which the body is able to burn fat deposits. Inflammation is systemic disorder that can lead to a wide range of digestive disorders that slow down the metabolism, or the rate at which the body is able to convert food into energy.
A high level of inflammation in the body can lead to digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut syndrome, or metabolic syndrome, a condition in which the body stores an excessive amount of energy as fat. Flavonoids and flavanols found in cocoa are able to dramatically reduce inflammation, thereby improving digestive function and increasing the efficiency of the metabolism, aiding in weight management.
A massive, 24-year long study performed by an international research team that included Harvard Medical School observed the effects of a flavanol-rich diet on over 120,000 different individuals. The results, published in 2016, found that flavanols supplementation offers a significantly reduced risk of developing obesity, with a strong correlation between individuals that consumed a large amount of flavanols and those that possessed a healthy BMI.
3. Cocoa Flavanol Controls Food Cravings
Food cravings are one of the most difficult problems dieters face when attempting to limit their dietary intake with the intent of losing weight. The process of burning fat requires an individual to consume less calories than the body needs, leading to both low blood sugar levels and increased levels of the hormones that induce food cravings. Both of these factors combine together to create difficult to deal with cravings that disrupt dietary intake.
Cocoa flavanols have been shown to help manage and balance blood sugar levels by increasing insulin sensitivity, reducing the effect of blood sugar imbalance on the body and assisting dieters in meeting their daily caloric consumption goals. This blood sugar regulation also helps to minimize appetite response, helping dieters lower their total intake and lose weight faster.
How to Enjoy the Health Benefits of Cocoa Flavanols
Why aren’t we eating cocoa beans every day? The truth is: raw cacao beans are bitter and virtually inedible.
That’s why we process cacao beans and turn them into foods we can eat – like chocolate. To turn cacao beans into chocolate, we roast them, ferment them, ground them, and separate them into cocoa powder and cocoa butter.
Here’s where the problem lies: these modern processing methods strip the flavanols from cocoa, which is why modern chocolate bars don’t come with superfood-like health benefits.
The flavanols have a bitter flavor, which is why we strip them from chocolate during processing. Traditionally, people have eaten chocolate for its sweetness.
However, now that we’ve identified the health benefits of cocoa flavanols, there has been a renewed push to introduce these flavanols back into chocolate production.
Popular Cocoa Flavanols Supplement
Cocoa flavanols have been popping up around the internet more and more lately. A big reason for that is CocoaVia, a food manufacturer that has recently begun selling its CocoaVia cocoa extract supplement online.
CocoaVia is a cocoa flavanols supplement available in capsules or powdered stick packs.
The 90 capsule package of CocoaVia capsules is priced at $44.99 per bottle, while the 30 count box of single serving powdered packets is priced at $44.99. You can save about 15% off both these prices by signing up for the company’s autoship program.
The creators of CocoaVia claim that their supplement can offer huge cardiovascular system benefits. By targeting the cardiovascular system, the supplement can improve the health of all of the following:
— Heart Health
— Brain Health
— Muscle, Skin, & Eye Health
— Exercise Performance
CocoaVia works by expanding your blood vessels, which makes it easier for your circulatory system to deliver valuable oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. As mentioned above, this blood vessel expansion is related to the fact that cocoa flavanols appear to raise nitric oxide (NO) levels within your blood.
Ultimately, cocoa flavanols are more popular today than they have ever been before. Thanks to new advances in food manufacturing technology, companies are able to purify the benefits of cocoa flavanols while stripping away unwanted fatty acids and sugars. By creating the perfect combination of cocoa flavanols, these manufacturers have ensued you can enjoy substantial cardiovascular benefits.
There’s no argument that flavanols derived from cocoa products offer a wide range of benefits that can improve the health of both body and mind. What’s important to remember and often overlooked by mainstream media, however, is that it’s important to regulate your intake of flavanol-rich foods that also contain a large amount of sugar, such as milk chocolate.
The best types of food to consume to increase your flavanol consumption are dark chocolate, cacao butter, raw cacao beans, or other flavanol-rich foods. While cocoa flavanols are unique to cocoa products, there are a number of other foods that are rich in flavonoids with similar health benefits such as tomatoes, legumes, and turnip greens.
To get the most out of the cocoa flavanol content of chocolate, it’s best to consume a maximum of 30-60 grams of dark, flavanol-rich chocolate every day. Overall, the hype around cocoa flavonoids, while occasionally excessive, is true- chocolate is good for you.