Flavenoids are compounds found naturally in food substances like cocoa and tea. They have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Turns out, eating chocolate can have some positive impact. Historians and anthropologists have unearthed all sorts of historical references to the use of cocoa in traditional medicine. Going back over 2000 years, there are examples from ancient civilizations to medieval societies of cocoa being used for fever, fatigue, heart pain and more (1).
Turns out those ancients probably knew what they were doing.
There are still remote places in Central and South America where traditional medicine is practiced, including the use of cocoa. Most of us think as cocoa as a sweet, decadent treat that’s really not that healthy. However, there’s growing evidence that those ancient cultures just might have been onto something we’ve been missing all these years.
The key to cocoa’s health benefits, it turns out, is something called “flavonoids”. They occur naturally in cocoa and although they’re found in many food substances, cocoa in particular is richly blessed with a rich supply of flavonoids.
Science is catching up, providing a larger and larger body of collective evidence that the flavonoids found in cocoa benefit us in many ways.
What are flavonoids?
Flavenoids are compounds found naturally in food substances like cocoa, tea, and blueberries. They’re what give fruit and veggies their beautiful colors, especially noticeable in berries. Quercetin is a flavonoid, you may have heard of it.
Food scientists consider flavonoids to be a type of phytonutrients, which are natural chemical’s found in plants (“phyto” means “plant” in Greek). An example of another phytonutrient is Resveratrol, which you might have heard of for its heart-healthy and anti-cancer properties.
Phytonutrients help protect plants from all sorts of dangers, like germs, fungi, bugs, and more. Instinctively, that should be telling us they might be of use to humans as well. Indeed, labs across the world are staying open all night, cranking out the clinical trials on phytonutrients. Although they’re not necessary for life, they sure do have the potential to make life better by preventing disease and helping your body to perform at optimal levels.
Flavonoids are of particular interest to people who study phytonutrients because of their strong anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They’re also one of the largest groups of nutrient families, with over 6,000 different types of flavonoids in existence.
The two of interest to us, since they’re found in cocoa, are catechin and epicatechin.
What can cocoa flavonoids do for us?
- reduce the risk of getting cardiovascular disease (2)
- zap free radicals, which are associated with cancer cell growth (3)
- help with cirrhosis of the liver
- improve cognition
Let’s see some science: high blood pressure
The flavonoids in chocolate have been studied and the strongest data focuses on their ability to decrease blood pressure in people who have high blood pressure (4).
Evidence for treatment of cirrhosis of the liver
Citing the same source, there is also pretty good evidence that the flavonoids in dark chocolate improves blood flow to the liver as well as reduces high blood pressure. Cirrhosis of the liver is accompanied by high blood pressure in the veins of the liver, so the implications for treating that disease are noteworthy.
Evidence: cardiovascular health
Since cocoa flavonoids reduce inflammation, act as anti-oxidants, relax smooth muscle, and improve blood flow, they produce enormous benefits for cardiovascular health (5). More trials have been done on the heart benefits of cocoa flavonoids than on any other health benefit.
By now, most medical practitioners are open to the possible heart-healthy benefits of drinking high-quality dark cocoa rich in flavonoids.
Evidence for improved brain function
Blood vessel function is important in other areas of the body too. The brain may also benefit from flavonoid since improved blood flow to the brain has implications for memory and learning. The reasoning, according to scientists (6), goes like this: since cocoa flavonoids go to work on free radicals of oxygen, and the brain consumes mega -amounts of oxygen, then the flavonoids logically must have an effect on the functions of the brain.
A study from two years ago showed tight correlation between drinking cocoa and improved cognition in older adults (7). 60 elderly participants were given 2 cups of cocoa per day and told not to eat chocolate, so as to control for the amount of cocoa flavonoids consumed. Changes in the middle cerebral artery and blood flow velocity were measured as participants responded to cognitive tasks.
Test scores for the participants were much higher for those whose blood flow was increased, which scientists know was due to the cocoa flavonoids. This has direct implications for detecting dementia in the aging segment of our population.
Indirectly, we can infer it may have implications for the brains of the rest of us as well.
Cocoa flavonoids introduce a range of health benefits to the human body. Flavonoid content varies according to how the beans are processed, but basically the more bitter the cocoa the more flavonoids it contains (8). The most proven benefit of cocoa flavonoids is in regards to heart health, as more research has been conducted in this area than others.
But scientists are rapidly expanding their knowledge base on cocoa flavonoids and soon we may be citing evidence of a whole range of exciting health and brain benefits. Just make sure you buy high-quality dark cocoa if you want to enjoy some of those flavonoid benefits.
- The Story of Chocolate: Ancients in Mesoamerica. Retrieved from http://www.thestoryofchocolate.com/Who/content.cfm?ItemNumber=3445
- Kris-Etherton PM, Keen CL. Evidence that the antioxidant flavonoids in tea and cocoa are beneficial for cardiovascular health. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11790962
- Yao LH et al. Flavonoids in food and their health benefits. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15678717
- Chocolate: Evidence. The May Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/chocolate/evidence/HRB-20058898
- Pucciarelli, Deanna L. Cocoa and Heart Health: A Historical Review of the Science. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3820048/
- Strand, Erik.Flavonoids: Antioxidants Help the Mind. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200307/flavonoids-antioxidants-help-the-mind
- Sorond, Farzaneh A.et al. Neurovascular coupling, cerebral white matter integrity, and response to cocoa in older people. Neurology. Retrieved from http://www.neurology.org/content/early/2013/08/07/WNL.0b013e3182a351aa.abstract
- Lesschaeve I, Noble AC. Polyphenols: factors influencing their sensory properties and their effects on food and beverage preferences. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15640499/