Multiple research studies suggest cocoa solids are one of the richest sources of flavanol antioxidants and carry health benefits, protecting against everything from heart disease to stroke to dementia.

Cocoa solids are a mixture of many substances remaining after cocoa butter is extracted from cacao beans. When sold as an end product, it may also be called cocoa powder or cocoa. In contrast, the fatty component of chocolate is cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is 50% to 57% of the weight of cocoa beans and gives chocolate its characteristic melting properties. Cocoa liquor or cocoa mass is a paste of roasted cocoa beans with cocoa butter and solids in their natural proportions. Chocolate requires the addition of extra cocoa butter to cocoa liquor, leading to an excess of cocoa solids and thus a relatively cheap supply of cocoa powder. This contrasts with the earliest European usage of cocoa where, before milk and dark chocolate was popularized, cocoa powder was the primary product and cocoa butter was little more than a waste product.

Cocoa solids are one of the richest sources of flavanol antioxidants. They are a key ingredient of chocolate, chocolate syrup, and chocolate confections.

Researchers at Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital are launching a massive, four-year, 18,000-person, randomized trial to get at some of the truths behind the potential health benefits of cocoa.

Earlier observational studies and smaller clinical studies have hinted that compounds in cocoa called flavanols carry health benefits, protecting against everything from heart disease to stroke to dementia, so researchers want to learn more.

“Cocoa flavanols appear to be very promising for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and memory loss, cognitive decline,” said JoAnn Manson, co-principal investigator of the study, Michael and Lee Bell Professor of Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School, and chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). “But the evidence to date has been inconclusive. Most of the randomized trials previously done have been smaller in size, suggesting there may be favorable effects on cardiovascular disease risk factors, including lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow and dilation of blood vessels, decreasing inflammation, and maybe improving insulin sensitivity and the ability to metabolize glucose.”

The cocoa bean packs some of nature’s most powerful phytonutrients called cocoa flavanols to help our body stay in tune. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that these cocoa flavanols promote healthy blood flow from head to toe†. Our heart, brain, and muscles depend on a healthy circulatory system. It helps us feel our best and perform at our highest. And supporting healthy blood flow is essential to helping you maintain who you are for years to come.

The bad news for chocoholics, however, is that though cocoa is a key ingredient, variations in processing methods make chocolate an unreliable source of flavanols, Manson said. Chocolate also typically contains enough fat, sugar, and calories that, however the trial turns out, it’s unlikely to result in prescriptions to eat more chocolate, though capsules or beverages high in cocoa flavanols are possible, Manson said.

Cleveland Clinic research also suggest;

Flavonoids help protect plants from environmental toxins and help repair damage. They can be found in a variety of foods, such as fruits and vegetables. When we eat foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that we also benefit from this “antioxidant” power.

Antioxidants are believed to help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals that are formed by normal bodily processes, such as breathing, and from environmental contaminants, like cigarette smoke. If your body does not have enough antioxidants to combat the amount of oxidation that occurs, it can become damaged by free radicals. For example, an increase in oxidation can cause low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol, to form plaque on the artery walls.

Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. In addition to having antioxidant qualities, research shows that flavanols have other potential influences on vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.

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These plant chemicals aren’t only found in chocolate. In fact, a wide variety of foods and beverages are rich in flavonols. These include cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions, tea and red wine.

Before you grab a chocolate candy bar or slice of chocolate cake, it’s important to understand that not all forms of chocolate contain high levels of flavanols.

Cocoa naturally has a very strong, pungent taste, which comes from the flavanols. When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce this taste. The more chocolate is processed (through things like fermentation, alkalizing, roasting, etc.), the more flavanols are lost.

Most commercial chocolates are highly processed. Although it was once believed that dark chocolate contained the highest levels flavanols, recent research indicates that, depending on how the dark chocolate was processed, this may not be true. The good news is that most major chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep the flavanols in their processed chocolates.

The fat in chocolate comes from cocoa butter and is made up of equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids. Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat. You may know that saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

But, research shows that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither raising nor lowering it. Although palmitic acid does affect cholesterol levels, it only makes up one-third of the fat calories in chocolate.

 

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