Cocoa is a natural source of flavonoids and other bioactive compounds. Its potential benefits on our health have been hidden by the presence of chocolate... but can cocoa improve your health?
During this review we'll go through the main evidence of cocoa flavanols and the different benefits these can provide you.
Cocoa is Not Chocolate
When we talk about cocoa we are not referring to chocolate or any derived compound.
"I'm eating a double choco cookie, but I've read chocolate is good for you"
"Let's have a brownie to get our daily intake of cocoa flavonols"
Cocoa is in chocolate, but it's not the only ingredient. If we look at the label of a random chocolate we'll find:
Chocolate is not even in the first place on the ingredient.
In food labels, the higher the ingredient is on the list the higher the content on the product.
That means that sugar is in higher contents that cocoa. And for every 2oz (57g) we'll have 19g added sugars, which is the same as 33g per 100g of product.
In contrast, this is the label of cocoa powder. No added sugars.
Calories are similar, but while 50g of chocolate are considerably easy to intake, 50g of cocoa powder are impossible to take at once.
The benefits of cocoa are not referred to chocolate. Cocoa and the bioactive compounds in it are responsible of all the benefits associated.
Chocolate contains cocoa, but the amount are insiginificant compared with cocoa powder. The potential benefits will be masked by the high content in sugars and other ingredients.
What are Cocoa Flavanols?
Flavonoids are polyphenolic compounds found naturally in different plants sources. They show antioxidant functions, fighting free radicals in our metabolism and improving our cell's activity (study)
Flavanols are a subclass of flavonoids. They show a small structural variation that changes their properties and metabolic actions.
The main cocoa flavanols are catechin, epicatechin and procyanidins (study). Catechin and epicatechin are the most abundant cocoa flavanols, and are responsible for most of the health benefits associated to cocoa.
Cocoa is one of the natural dietary sources with the highest content on polyphenolic compounds (study).
Catequins are polyphenolic compounds found in plant sources. They protect the plant from environmental toxins and exert potent antioxidant effect (study).
Examples of catechins are EGCG (tea), epicatechin (apricots), or epigallocatechin (red algae) (study).
Products with high content in catechins are antioxidative, antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, antiproliferative, antithrombogenic, and anti-hyperlipidemic (study).
Epicatechin is an isomer derived from catechin. It shows a similar structure but with a slight variation in the 3-D distribution and location of functional groups (study).
Procyanidins are responsible of the bitterness of cocoa. They are captured by salvary proteins forming a complex and giving the bitter taste (study).
Procyanidins are oligomeric compounds formed by catequin and epicatequin. They are antioxidants, dealing with free radicals in our organism (study).
Health Benefits of Cocoa Flavanols
Falavanols decrease markers of low chronic inflammation (study). Cocoa flavanols inhibit the action of inflammatory enzymes and down-regulate inflammation
Procyanidin modulate platelete aggregation and accumulation (study). In this study, subjects that followed an intake of a high-cocoa beverage showed a reduction in platelet function and activation (study).
Cocoa Flavanols reduce the risk of cardiovascular events
Near 500 million persons per year suffered from cardiovascular events in 2019 (source). There is a strong evidence support the benefits of cocoa flavanols improving cardiovascular health
Cocoa flavanols reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by improving blood lipid profile, endothelial dysfunction, blood pressure, and vascular stiffness (study).
Cocoa flavanols improve cognitive performance
In this study (study), acute intake of cocoa led to improved working memory and lower mental fatigue.
The mechanisms suggest an interaction between cocoa flavanols and metabolites present in brain cells.
These are the brain derived neutrophic factor (BDNF), nerve growth factor (NGF) or other mechanisms involving prefrontal cerebral flow (study)
To date, cocoa flavanols have potential benefits to improve our working memory, reduce mental fatigue and enhance our overall cognitive performance.
Cocoa Flavanols improve Obesity and Metabolic disorders
Cocoa intake improves blood pressure (as we saw before) and improves blood lipid profile, markers associated with obesity
The antiinflammatory actions of cocoa flavanols could also benefit metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes mellitus.
Cocoa flavanols seem to improve insulin resistance (study). The antioxidant properties of cocoa flavanols could also lower the risk of metabolic disorders.
- The main cocoa flavanols are catechin, epicatechin and procyanidins
- Cocoa flavanols could improve cardiovascular healhth by lowering blood pressure and improving lipid blood profile, vascular stiffnedd and endothelial function
- Evidence suggesting improved cognitive performance is scarce but promising.
- The antiinflamatory and antioxidant actions of cocoa flavanols are of high interest to improve our health
Other Health Benefits of Cocoa Flavanols
Cocoa flavanols improve the gut microbiota
Cocoa flavanols have low bioavailabaility and intestinal absorption (study).
They reach the colon, and the gut microbiota will use the cocoa flavanols to synthesize other metabolites (SCFAs, for example)
Cocoa flavanols favours microbial growth of benefitial microorganisms such as Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium and inhibitd microbial growth of pathogens such as Clostridium Perifrengis (study).
Modulate the inmune system
The inmune system is such a complex system with a lot of organs, molecules and structures are involved.
Cocoa flavanols modulate and improve the function of lymphoid tissues, responsible of differentiation and proliferation of inmune cells (study).
They have an impact on the adaptive inmune response, modulating T cells and improving the inmune response (study).
Cocoa Flavanols and Sport
Now it's time to geet into our 'sweet spot'.
Can cocoa improve your performance? Let's have a look at the evidence known to date.
Benefits of cocoa flavanols on sports performance
In this study, 3 months intake of cocoa lead to an increase in available glucose and decrease in glucagon. However, the effect was small (study). This could suggest a higher efficiency when using carbohydrates for physical activity.
Free fatty acid mobilization was improved in this other study (study).
Cocoa flavanols don't seem to impact and improve sports performance directly. The majority of studies shows non-consistent neutral effects or a small benefits (meta-analysis)
Cocoa Flavanols and Muscle recovery
Cocoa flavanols havea possitive effect on attenuating exercise-induced oxidative stress and inflammation after acute exercise (study).
However, muscle soreness was not improved by cocoa intake. Muscular function did not change within groups either.
Cocoa flavanols could improve sports performance by enhancing muscle recovery and attenuating excess oxidative stress.
- Cocoa flavanols can serve as prebiotics
- Inmune systems seems to be potentiated by cocoa flavanols
- Cocoa flavanols don't improve directly sports performance
- Muscle recovery after exercise is enhanced by the intake of cocoa flavanols
The main Cocoa flavanols are catechin, epicatechin and procyanidin
Cocoa flavanols improve cardiovascular parameters, show antioxidant and antiinflamatory effects, and may improve metabolic disorders and cognitive performance.
Cocoa flavanols seem to improve muscle recovery, but with no direct improvements in sports performance.