Headlines touting the health benefits of raw cocoa – and extra-dark chocolate bars made from it – aren’t just hype.
While limited, the clinical evidence for dark chocolate’s artery-health and blood-flow benefits is almost entirely positive … and its plausibility is supported by bountiful lab evidence.
Earlier this month, the famously hard-nosed European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approved this health claim for extra-dark (80% cocoa) chocolate: “cocoa flavanols help maintain endothelium-dependent vasodilation which contributes to normal blood flow.”
The EFSA’s approval was based on evidence that daily intake of 200mg of cocoa flavanols – which include epicatechins and procyanidins – promotes optimal blood circulation.
The uncommon “antioxidants”
in raw cocoa and dark chocolate
There’s ample evidence that diets rich in berries or other foods rich in polyphenols help deter the oxidative cell damage and inflammation caused by free radicals.
It’s becoming clear that polyphenols generally do not exert direct antioxidant effects in the body… at least not to a very substantial extent.
Instead, polyphenols appear to reduce oxidation and inflammation via so-called “nutrigenomic” effects on gene switches (e.g. transcription factors) in our cells.
Polyphenols’ nutrigenomic effects tend to moderate inflammation and stimulate the body’s own antioxidant network … which includes enzymes, lipoic acid, CoQ10, melatonin, and vitamins C and E.
In terms of their amounts of polyphenols per ounce, the richest food sources of polyphenols include raw (non-alkalized / non-“Dutched”) cocoa, spices, herbs, berries, plums, prunes, tea, coffee, extra virgin olive oil, onions, beans, and whole grains.
The antioxidants in cocoa are called flavanols … a relatively rare group of polyphenols whose only members are the compounds called catechins and procyanidins.
Catechins only occur abundantly in raw cocoa, dark chocolate, and green or white tea – with much smaller concentrations in other plant foods – while procyanidins abound in berries.
This amount of cocoa flavanols can be gotten from 2.5 grams (about one-tenth ounce) of “raw,” non-Dutched cocoa powder or 10 grams (about one-third ounce) of 80% extra-dark chocolate.
(Most cocoa brands treat their cocoa with alkali – the process known as “Dutching” – which destroys some 90 percent of its healthful flavanols.)
More recently, clinical research has linked cocoa’s flavanols to enhanced brain health.
And those indications have just been affirmed in an evidence review from INSERM (the French Medical Research Institute) … which is that nation’s counterpart to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
French evidence review sees evidence of chocolate’s brain benefits
The evidence review was authored by functional neurochemist Astrid Nehlig, Ph.D., of INSERM, who found sufficient evidence to support the idea that cocoa flavanols can boost basic thinking and memory functions.
She analyzed the studies submitted to EFSA and came to this conclusion: “Cocoa powder and chocolate contain a large percentage of flavonoids that display several beneficial actions on the brain.” (Nehlig A 2012)
In addition, she found that “… [cocoa] flavonoids preserve cognitive abilities during aging in rats, [and] lower the risk for developing Alzheimer's disease and … stroke in humans.” (Nehlig A 2012)
And as she wrote, “Chocolate also induces positive effects on mood and is often consumed under emotional stress,” in part because eating it stimulates the release of endorphins.” (Nehlig A 2012)
Specifically, Dr. Nehlig found ample evidence that cocoa flavanols can keep brain cells alive by enhancing the supply of blood to capillaries in the brain, and help create new blood vessels.
She concluded that epicatechin – the main flavanol in cocoa, which also abounds in green and white tea – was the major reason for these benefits.
Choose your cocoa and chocolate carefully
The cocoa butter (cocoa fat) used to make chocolate is high in saturated fat, but it’s a type (stearic acid) that does not appear to harm heart health.
As Nehlig wrote, “On the basis of the present knowledge, it appears that the benefits from moderate cocoa or chocolate consumption likely outweigh the possible risks.”
She also proposed that regular consumption of flavanol-rich chocolate or cocoa could help prevent or delay age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease
Nehlig A. The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2012 Jul 10. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.x. [Epub ahead of print]