You may have read that dark chocolate can be beneficial to your health. While eating a lot of sugar-ladened and fat-heavy chocolate is not a healthy food choice, there is some truth to the rumors that eating chocolate can be heart healthy.
Plants produce compounds rich in antioxidants, called flavonoids. A type of flavonoid that is found in cocoa beans is called flavanol. Much research has been conducted to support the benefits of flavanols in chocolate.
Plants With Flavanols
Flavanols can be found in many fruits and vegetables, including:
- Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries
- Onions and scallions
- Kale, lettuce and broccoli
Tea and red wine are also rich in flavanols.
Benefits of Flavanols
Flavanols have been found to fight off toxins in the body. Research has also shown that flavanols can help to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. There have also been positive studies showing that flavanols can improve brain function.
How Flavanols Work in the Body
Flavanols contain a super-molecule called nitric oxide, which has been proven to relax the arteries. When arteries become relaxed, they widen to allow more blood flow. A vast number of health concerns are related to poor circulation, especially as bodies get older. Many heart issues, inflammation in the joints and cognitive decline can all be traced back to poor blood circulation.
Cocoa Flavanol Medical Studies
For over 20 years, scientists have conducted dozens of studies with cocoa flavanols to see how they can improve blood flow.
- Heart Studies – Research has shown that the cardiovascular system can be improved by the intake of cocoa flavanols. These flavanols improve the function of the endothelial cells, which are the cells that line the inside of blood vessels in the circulatory system. Healthy blood vessels are required to keep the blood flowing properly to the heart.
- Brain Research – Studies show that cocoa flavanols can enhance the function of the dentate gyrus, which is located in the portion of the brain that affects memory and spatial navigation. This encouraging research will hopefully lead to further studies on the reduction of cognitive decline.
- Total Body Health – Research suggests that cocoa flavanols can improve overall health by improving blood circulation throughout the entire body.
Cocoa Solids and Cocoa Butter
Before you go out and purchase a cart full of chocolate bars, there is some important information to consider. To produce chocolate, cocoa beans are fermented and then dried. Once dried, they are roasted and ground. The fat in the cocoa beans, called cocoa butter, becomes a liquid and is extracted from the cocoa solids. The largest percentage of healthy flavanols are found in the cocoa solids.
- Cocoa butter – Most chocolate bars are made with a high percentage of cocoa butter because of its smoothness and excellent melting qualities. Milk chocolate has more sugar than dark chocolate versions. The darker the chocolate, the less sugar it contains.
- Cocoa solids – Cocoa powder is made from the cocoa solids, which contain the most flavanols. However, much of the cocoa powder that you purchase in the store has been processed by a method called alkalization. This process reduces bitterness and helps it become more soluble but it also removes many of the flavanols.
Healthy Alternatives to Eating Chocolate
Since you would need to eat a whole lot of chocolate to get the health benefits from cocoa flavanols, your calorie intake would be off the charts. Obviously, this would be counterproductive to your overall health. Purchasing cocoa flavanol capsules is a healthy alternative. Most capsules have a high concentration of flavanol extract without the calories. You can also purchase cocoa flavanol drink mixes and snack packs.
There has been exciting research linking cocoa flavanols to heart and brain health. Just make sure you find a smart way to add those flavanols to your diet.