Do you think of chocolate as a sinful snack or a healthy bite? Chocolate candy itself probably should be considered sinful. It usually contains too much sugar to count as health food. The cocoa flavanols it contains, on the other hand, have surprising health benefits. While it is difficult to calculate the dose from a candy bar, it is easy to benefit from carefully calibrated quantities of these plant compounds. Moreover, you don’t have to worry about sugar or calories if you stick with cocoa flavanol supplements.
What Are the Health Benefits of Cocoa Flavanols?
People who consumed cocoa flavanols had better blood flow and lower blood pressure (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Feb. 2017). People who ingest these products have more flexible arteries (Nutrients, March 8, 2019). Less arterial stiffness and better endothelial function could lower your chance of having a heart attack or developing heart disease (British Journal of Nutrition, Oct. 28, 2015).
These benefits have been proven in clinical trials, but researchers have noticed significant variability among studies and between participants. Now scientists have preliminary data that may help explain the variability (Frontiers in Nutrition, June 2022). Eleven healthy volunteers took 862 mg cocoa flavanols or placebo in an alternating pattern for eight days. Each person used an automatic blood pressure monitor to measure blood pressure and heart rate. In addition, they utilized finger clips to measure pulse wave velocity. Researchers use pulse wave velocity to assess arterial stiffness.
When volunteers had high systolic blood pressure or pulse wave velocity early in the day, taking the cocoa flavanols lowered them significantly. If these values were not elevated, people did not experience changes after taking the supplements. Because the participants measured their blood pressure throughout the day, they found that there were two times when the effects of cocoa flavanols were apparent. The first was within three hours of taking the supplements. Surprisingly, the second was approximately eight hours later, possibly due to bacterial metabolism of the cocoa compounds.
According to the investigators,
“What we have found indicates that cocoa flavanols only decrease blood pressure if it is elevated. Working with participants’ personal health technologies showed us how variable blood pressure and arterial stiffness can be from day to day and shows the role of personal health monitors in developing and implementing effective personalized care.”
People who take in these plant compounds every day appear to lower their risk of metabolic syndrome (Nutrients, March 30, 2019). That might be due in part to their anti-inflammatory activity.
Cocoa Flavanols Fight Inflammation:
A review in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology (Dec. 12, 2013) considers how cocoa flavanols affect the human body. The authors are hard-core biochemists from Innsbruck Medical University in Austria. These researchers note that there are more than 380 compounds in cocoa, many of which are known to be powerful antioxidants with numerous pharmacological activities including:
- Anti-inflammatory biochemistry
- Anti platelet action (reducing the sticky part of blood to reduce the risk of blood clots)
- Immune system modulation (enhancing cellular defense against viruses, bacteria and parasites)
- Nitric oxide enhancement (improving blood vessel flexibility & lowering blood pressure)
- Anti-oxidative effects (combatting atherosclerosis)
- Neurotransmitter modulation (improving mood)
The benefits to blood vessels may also help prevent stroke as well as heart attacks.
According to a review article, cocoa flavanols reduce blood pressure and control insulin resistance (Stroke Jan. 2014):
“Cacao products, such as chocolate, are rich sources of flavonoids, which are potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds…A recent meta-analysis of 42 acute or short-term chronic (≤ 18 weeks) RCTs [randomized controlled trials] found that cocoa or chocolate interventions significantly reduced fasting insulin concentrations, insulin resistance and mean arterial pressure as well as improved endothelia function measured by FMD [flow mediated dilation, a measure of blood vessel flexibility]…Results from a meta-analysis of those 5 [prospective epidemiological] studies (4 from Europe and 1 from the United States) showed a significant 19% lower risk of stroke when comparing the highest with the lowest category of chocolate consumption and a significant 14% reduction in stroke risks for a 50-g/week increment in chocolate consumption…”
All of these health benefits are important, but it is entirely possible that some people will be even more intrigued by a recent 6-month study showing that women who took cocoa flavanols (320 mg/day) instead of placebo had more elastic skin and less visible wrinkles at the end of the trial (Journal of Nutrition, Jan. 2016).
Maintaining Cognitive Capacity:
Keeping the brain working properly is another goal that can be hard to achieve, so a study conducted in Italy with 90 older adults is quite promising. The volunteers took varying amounts of cocoa flavanols. They were tested at the beginning and end of the 8-week trial, and those who had received high-dose cocoa flavanols (993 mg/day) fared significantly better than those getting low-dose cocoa flavanols (48 mg/day). The research is consistent with previous findings (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March, 2015).
Other research shows that students ingesting cocoa flavanols performed better on certain cognitive tests (Psychopharmacology, May 2018). One group of scientists devised a clever way to test the effects of these compounds on brain oxygenation and on performance in high-demand situations (Scientific Reports, Nov. 24, 2020). Cocoa flavanols offered a significant boost to healthy young people under these conditions. In addition, a Spanish analysis of eleven trials found the same results (Nutrients, Nov. 30, 2020).
Where Do You Get Cocoa Flavanols?
Finding the best chocolate for pharmacological benefits is not easy. There is no standardized way of determining the flavanol content of cocoa or chocolate by reading most labels. That’s why we like CocoaVia. Instead of chocolate, the company’s products offer standardized doses of cocoa flavanols. The new CardioHealth products provide 500 mg of cocoa flavanols per serving, whether it’s powder or capsules. What’s more, the Memory + product offers 750 mg in a daily dose. That corresponds to the amount that proved effective in studies. To get 15% off your purchase of any product at CocoaVia.com, use the discount code PEOPLES15 at checkout.
We think their quality assurance program is outstanding. But you don’t have to take our word for it. ConsumerLab.com, one of the few organizations in the US to do objective evaluations of dietary supplements, chose CocoaVia™ Memory+ as its Top Pick for cocoa flavanol supplements. You can learn more here.
Kudos to CocoaVia, Maker of Cocoa Flavanol Products:
For about 20 years, scientists have been studying the impact of cocoa flavanols on cardiovascular health (Current Opinion in Lipidology, Feb. 2002). One problem they identified was consistency. As with other biological components, the amount of these antioxidant compounds varies from one batch of cacao pods to another. In addition, cocoa processing can reduce or damage cocoa flavanols. That helps explain the title of one early review: “Chocolate: A Heart-healthy Food? Show Me the Science!” (Nutrition Today, May-June 2002).
However, scientists have produced plenty of studies this century. Mars, International, has funded quite a bit of research on how to maintain high levels of cocoa flavanols in products. (To be sure, numerous studies like the one cited above in Frontiers in Nutrition had other funding.)
The products the company has developed, under the CocoaVia brand name, deliver consistent and reliable doses without the drawback of sugar or fat. We are delighted that CocoaVia is an underwriter for The People’s Pharmacy broadcasts and podcasts. You should be pleased, too. You can get 15% off your purchase of any CocoaVia product with the discount coupon PEOPLES15. Be sure to use it when you check out.