Cocoa Flavonoids: the overview
Cocoa flavonoids are a nutritious compound found in cocoa beans. For years, flavonoids have been studied for their nutritional properties and their potential to treat age-related conditions and problems.
Perhaps the most important benefit of cocoa flavonols is the ability to protect the heart. According to the European Food Information Council, cocoa flavonoids are superior to flavonoids found in fruits and vegetables when it comes to antioxidant properties.
For example, cocoa contains Flavan-3-ols, compounds that have been shown in studies to positively affect insulin sensitivity. In fact, in a study published in the Diabetes Care journal, patients who consumed a diet high in Flavan-3-ols experienced improved insulin sensitivity, a decrease in their insulin levels, and a significant positive change in lipoprotein (the matter that makes up HDL and LDL cholesterol (1).
Plus, here’s an interesting find: while consumption of fatty foods can lead to an increase in cholesterol and subsequent issues with heart health, chocolate doesn’t seem to have that effect. Why not? Well, the fat in cocoa/chocolate comes mainly from monounsaturated fat oleic acid and saturated fat palmitic acid (3). This is important because neither of these fats had a significant effect on cholesterol levels, so even though consuming large amount of chocolate could lead to weight gain, this is more likely to be because of the fats and sugars added to commercially produced chocolate products, rather than any fat naturally present in cocoa.
Cocoa has one additional benefit: it is a stimulant just as coffee and tea, but the way it works in the body might offer an alternative to those who cannot handle other drinks. For example, coffee contains the stimulant caffeine, while tea contains the compound theophylline. While both have stimulant properties, they are also diuretics, an issue for those who can’t afford to lose liquids. Cocoa, on the other hand, contains mainly theobromine (in addition to small amounts of caffeine), which is less diuretic and is linked to heart health (4). Large amounts of caffeine, on the other hand, have significant stimulant properties, and that can be an issue for those suffering from a health condition.
New studies also show an unexpected benefit of cocoa: it can help lower blood pressure. While green tea is a powerful antioxidant rich in polyphenols or flavonoids, it falls short in its ability to positively affect blood pressure, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (5). But when researchers looked at a number of studies conducted between 1996 and 2006, they found cocoa fared much better when it comes to helping individuals deal with hypertension. In fact, those consuming cocoa experienced a reduction in both systolic and diastolic (high and low) blood pressure. And the numbers were impressed as well: comparable to the results obtained when taking blood pressure-lowering medications. None of the patients drinking green tea or consuming other forms of flavonoid-rich foods obtained similar results.
The conclusion? Researchers believe cocoa’s procyanids (a specific type of flavonoid) might be the reason behind the positive effect on blood pressure. The same researchers also note that these benefits are seen only when consuming dark chocolate, not sweetened, processed chocolate products commercially available in the market. Dark chocolate is minimally processed and rich in all the flavonoids that carry these health benefits – and that are normally lost during processing.
Another significant discovery has come from research done into Central and South American tribes that consume large quantities of cocoa as part of their diets. The Kuna tribe in Panama is a clear example. A study published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences showed that the Kuna Indians have a significant lower risk of contracting a number of chronic diseases and fatal conditions that seriously affect the West (6). For example, the Kuna people have a much lower incidence of cancer than the rest of the population of Panama. They also have lower rates of heart disease and less age-related memory issues. The Kuna people consume a large amount of cocoa on a daily basis – and as a result have a diet very rich in flavonoids.
Additional research has shown that flavonoids also have a positive impact on impaired immune function, as well as having antininflammatory properties (7). The effects are so significant that researchers are looking at the power of flavonoids to improve skin health. For example, flavonoids have photoprotection properties (8).
This means they can protect the skin against the damaging effects of UV light, which include burning, photoaging, edema (water retention) and an increased risk in developing skin cancer. This is an important discovery, as skin elasticity and structure (including the appearance of wrinkles and scaling) is often only treated externally – rather than through diet. By adding flavonoid-rich foods like cocoa into the diet, researchers believe it might be possible to slow down the aging of the skin, protecting it against the damaging effects of the sun and possibly helping avoid more serious issues.
While there’s still much under consideration when it comes to the positive effects of cocoa flavonoids, researchers agree that anything to come is likely to be positive. There are few reasons to believe cocoa can harm you. On the contrary, it seems that the more research is conducted, the more reasons are found to increase the consumption of dark chocolate.
Many of the potential benefits of dark chocolate are still being studied and it might be years before we hear conclusive proof of those findings. Still, adding some dark chocolate to your daily diet can’t be a bad idea, especially if you stick to a small piece and stay away from anything with added sugar or fats.