Cocoa and cocoa products are a rich source of flavonoids, mainly of the flavanol subclass, which exerts cardiovascular benefits. More recently, studies have suggested neuro-modulatory, neuro-protective, metabolic, and other very interesting actions.
Research shows that flavonoids may have important effects on the skin, as well as other aspects of health. Cocoa and chocolate are the foods with the highest flavanols content. In fact, 10% by weight of cocoa powder would contain flavonoids, specifically Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) which enhances blood circulation, improves cognitive function, and provides effects on skin elasticity, reducing the appearance of wrinkles.
After ingestion, the bioavailability of flavanols is highly dependent on their absorption capacity, metabolism in the gastrointestinal tract, tissue, and cellular distribution, as well as tissue metabolism. It should be noted that your digestive system should also be balanced to be able to absorb these and other nutrients properly.
Let's Find out More About the Mechanisms of Cocoa flavanols and Their Benefits on Health
After ingestion, flavanols can undergo significant modifications that give rise to several bioactive molecules with beneficial effects on chronic diseases related to metabolic disorders and oxidative stress. The mechanisms that have been proposed to explain the biological actions of flavanols are based on their ability to act as antioxidants and to interact with signalling proteins, enzymes, DNA and membranes. Depending on the concentrations reached in their target tissues, their mechanisms have been classified as direct (high concentration) or indirect (low concentration).
So far, the most studied direct effects of cocoa flavanols are related to their antioxidant capacity as they act as electron donors (e-) and stabilise free radicals in the body.
One of the main limitations of the direct effects of flavanols under in vivo conditions is their relatively low bioavailability. Therefore, it has been suggested that in living organisms the main effects of flavonols are mediated through modifications of enzymatic activities, regulation of protein synthesis and activities, binding of transcription factors to their specific sites on DNA, among others. In the case of metabolic syndrome, indirect mechanisms have been the most studied. Both in vivo and in vitro models have been useful in linking physiological mechanisms to health effects. Again, good gut health is important for cocoa and chocolate flavanols to provide their benefits.
Benefits of Cocoa Flavanols on Your Health
Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
Oxidative stress and inflammation are factors with great potential to exacerbate the progression of metabolic syndrome. The accumulation of visceral fat (central obesity) is closely related to increased production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and expression of inflammation-related genes (TNF-α, CRP, IL-6, IL-18, NF-κβ) that increase the risk of developing chronic non-communicable diseases.
Taken together, the antioxidant capacity of flavanols and the inverse association of cocoa and chocolate intake and the development of cardiovascular disease have suggested that these compounds have the potential to reduce oxidative stress and inflammatory processes.
Effects of flavanols on lipid metabolism disorders
According to the criteria for the diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, the main disorders of lipid metabolism include elevated plasma triglyceride (TG) levels and low high-density lipoprotein (HDL-c) concentrations.
However, the dyslipidaemia of metabolic syndrome also involves increased total cholesterol (TC), remnant chylomicrons, low-density lipoproteins (LDL-c) and very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL-c).
Epidemiological evidence shows a direct link between the intake of polyphenol-rich vegetables and a reduced predisposition to develop dyslipidaemia and cardiovascular disease. Observational studies and clinical trials in animals and humans have demonstrated the positive effects of cocoa flavanols on oxidation, inflammation, and endothelial function. It has also been shown that these compounds are able to improve the lipid profile that predisposes subjects to the development of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
Studies Validating the Benefits of Cocoa Flavanols on the Circulatory System
A study of elderly patients with peripheral arterial disease who consumed a cocoa flavonoid drink (15g cocoa and 75mg epicatechin) 3 times a day for 6 months were able to walk an additional +18.4 metres in a 6-minute walk test, compared to those who took the drink on placebo.
This result was found to be a consequence of increased blood flow to their calves and thus increased muscle function.
Participants in PAD (peripheral arterial disease) randomised to cocoa flavanols improved several measures of skeletal muscle, including mitochondrial activity and capillary abundance, compared to placebo.
Another study in healthy young men showed that dark chocolate improved their cycling performance. Those who consumed dark chocolate were able to cycle 75% further in the same amount of time as the control group who consumed a placebo.
It was also found that those who consumed the chocolate did not need to consume as much oxygen to cycle further.
Another study was conducted on a varied group of people whose circulation and blood pressure were measured when they consumed between 0 and 800 mg of cocoa flavanols a day for 1 week. The results showed that depending on the dosage (from 80 mg - 800 mg per day for one week), the improvement in circulation increased. Higher concentrations of cocoa flavanols lowered systolic blood pressure by about 5 points and diastolic blood pressure by about 3 points. That is, for a person with a blood pressure of 140/90 it was reduced to 135/87.
Studies using cocoa flavanols have shown that blood flow to the brain can be increased. It should be noted that cardiovascular health correlates with overall cognitive function.
This study showed that a single dose of 450 mg can increase blood flow to the brain, and this can be measured through EMR imaging. One of the areas of the brain, part of the hippocampus, called the dentate gyrus, is the part of the brain that deals with memory and an increase in cerebral blood flow means protection against cognitive decline.
Another study found that elderly patients with mild brain dysfunction who were consuming up to 990 mg of cocoa flavanols per day for 8 weeks showed improvement in verbal fluency and cognition tests compared to the control group.
These patients also had a decrease in insulin resistance, blood pressure, as well as lipid peroxidation. In conclusion, there was a generalised metabolic improvement that corresponded with the improvement in cognitive function.
Flavanols and Their Rejuvenating Effect on the Skin
The flavonoids in cocoa increase the elasticity, hydration, and density of the skin. In addition, epicatechin raises oxygen saturation in haemoglobin, which stimulates skin circulation and contributes to endogenous photoprotection.
A double-blind study of Korean women aged between 40 and 80 who consumed 320 mg of cocoa flavanols a day for 24 weeks showed improvements in facial wrinkles and skin elasticity compared to a control group taking a placebo.
Consuming around 375 mg of flavanols from good quality cocoa (in this respect it is important that it is organic) could guarantee a high flavonol content and a minimum of contaminant products as it is a product vulnerable to a high content of heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, and lead.
Also, to note, both cocoa and chocolate are stimulants as they contain caffeine. So, it is a food to be consumed early in the day and avoided in the evening so that there is no risk of sleep disruption.
Positive effects of flavanols in cocoa and chocolate can be cancelled out by the presence of sugar.
One of the worst nutritional habits for your health has to do with high consumption of refined sugar. Residues of sugar metabolism, called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), promote oxidative stress, trigger the production of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) and the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines.
AGEs can affect the composition and structure of the skin, among other things, leading to blemishes and wrinkles. Now imagine consuming a food with all the benefits provided by the flavonols in cocoa and chocolate and having them cancelled out by the sugar content.
As much as you can, avoid refined sugars with your food or at least exercise to move blood glucose to the muscles and use it as fuel.
Nutritional flavanols are bioavailable molecules in the human body with important health benefits such as anti-oxidation, cardio protection, antibacterial, antiviral, and anticancer activity. In the process of metabolization they are also compounds with key bio-activities, so their inclusion in your diet is highly recommended for their health-promoting properties, being excellent nutraceuticals, as well as ingredients for a good diet in moderate consumption.