Healthy chocolate? The growing evidence for cocoa flavanols

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Healthy chocolate? The growing evidence for cocoa flavanols

Related tags Cocoa flavanols Catechin Flavonoid Diabetes Hershey

The meteoric emergence of cocoa flavanols as the new 'super ingredient' continues, with many new scientific publications focused on the potential health effects of these special compounds. As part of this special edition, we take a look at some of the highlights.

With confectionery giants including Mars, Nestlé and Hershey putting considerable R&D spend into the topic, it is no wonder that the potential health benefits from flavanols from cocoa are generating interest. From heart health, to diabetes risk, brain benefits and even cancer prevention; the potential for cocoa flavanols to impact our health is seemingly limitless.

In this special edition article ConfectioneryNews.com takes a closer look at the science behind such suggested health benefits - offering an insight on emerging science that may show the true benefits of these powerful cocoa compounds.

Cocoa compound

Cocoa contains particularly high quantities of phenolic phytochemicals known as flavanols (flavan-3-ols).

These phenolic compounds - especially two stereoisomers known as catechin and epicatechin -  have been gathering increasing interest from research groups around the globe - sparking a substantial increase in column inches in national and international media.

According to Mars, the benefits of cocoa bean revolve around the these flavan-3-ols, and particularly the monomeric flavanol (-)epicatechin.

To date studies have reported potential benefits based on the compounds antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and vasodilatory effects - these potential benefits include effects on cardiovascular health, skin health, mood, brain health and cognition, and even cancer risk.

Cocoa flavanols have been shown to be released from foods and beverages where they are absorbed and metabolized in to the blood stream where the compounds may have numerous effects. Flavanol compounds are also known to readily cross the blood-brain barrier where they could have important effects on neuronal processes governing neurotransmission.

Cardiovascular benefits

The majority of science into the potential benefits of cocoa have revolved around cardiovascular benefits of the flavan-3-ols.

Indeed, global cocoa giant Barry Callebaut has already been awarded a positive health claim opinion from The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for the beneficial effects of cocoa on blood flow, which after a recent amendment - see here​ - means it will soon be able to claim that cocoa helps to maintain the 'elasticity of blood vessels'.

The company hopes to use the claim on products made through its flavanol-preserving Acticoa method, a process that maintains 80% of cocoa flavanols usually destroyed in the chocolate-making process.

Meanwhile a recent systematic review of scientific evidence by the Cochrane collaboration - found here​ - suggested that flavanols in cocoa may have blood pressure benefits - concluding that "flavanol-rich chocolate and cocoa products may have a small but statistically significant effect in lowering blood pressure by 2-3 mm Hg in the short term."

The Cochrane review limited its findings to short-term effects because the group was unable to identify any randomized, controlled trials that tested the effect of long-term daily ingestion of cocoa products on blood pressure, "and there were no trials that measured an effect on clinical outcomes related to high blood pressure such as heart attacks or strokes."

Mood and cognition

Aside from its potential cardiovascular benefits, one of the most commonly suggested benefits of cocoa flavanols is that they are able to boost moods and cognitive functions via their ability for cross the blood-brain barrier.

Several recent research papers have explored these links, suggesting that consumption of cocoa flavanols could help to promote brain performance by boosting the efficiency of certain brain functions including working memory - in addition to helping to boost moods.

Research published in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry recently found that cocoa polyphenols trigger neuroprotective activities in the brain that might protect people from neurogenetive diseases such as Alzheimer's disease.

“Cocoa seems to affect, directly or indirectly, signal transduction pathways involved in neuronal death and neuroprotection, supporting the possibility of its potential use as preventive agent for neurodegenerative diseases characterized by oxidative stress,”​ said the researchers.

While a recent review – published in the Journal of Functional Foods​ – suggested that while there are many studies to show that flavanols “can have a marked impact on mood,”​ there are not yet enough well conducted trials to show the compounds have a positive influence on mood and mood disorders.

“Today, we know far too little about effects of flavanol-rich cocoa-derived products in the brain to fully describe their actions on mood disorders,”​ said review author by Donald Smith from Aarhus University, Denmark.

Smith added that “it would be of interest to determine whether flavanol-rich cocoa-derived products are beneficial as dietary supplements in the prevention and/or treatment of human mood disorders.”

Related topics Research Cardiovascular health

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