It was long believed that the higher the percentage of cocoa in a chocolate-containing product, such as milk and ice cream, the higher the quality of the chocolate and the more concentrated the source of good-for-you compounds. Today we know that this is not necessarily true.

It was long believed that the higher the percentage of cocoa in a chocolate-containing product, such as milk and ice cream, the higher the quality of the chocolate and the more concentrated the source of good-for-you compounds. Today we know that this is not necessarily true.

What we do know is that select cocoas, and the chocolates and chocolate ingredients made from them, are loaded with several bioactive compounds including polyphenols, theobromine, phenylethylamine, anadamide, phenylalanine and tyrosine. The compounds receiving the most attention are the polyphenols, which are a large class of molecules that includes numerous sub-categories such as the flavonoids. Flavonoids are further divided into sub-classes, including the flavanols found in cocoa. Scientists have identified several cocoa flavanols, such as epicatechin, catechin and their oligomeric forms. Further, researchers recognize an array of health benefits associated with consuming these cocoa flavanols, including improved blood vessel function and increased blood flow; reduced tendency of blood clots to form; reduced blood pressure in people with mild hypertension; and increased blood flow to the brain.

Scientists know that the percent of cocoa mass in chocolate does not indicate cocoa flavanol content. The fact is that traditional cocoa processing usually destroys flavanols; however, a number of cocoa processors and chocolate ingredient suppliers have developed technologies that retain the flavanols normally destroyed during cocoa processing. These are the ingredients that have potential in the next generation of functional dairy foods.

New findings

New research published in the Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment journal suggests that long-term improvements in brain blood flow from consuming cocoa flavanols could impact cognitive behavior, offering future potential for debilitating brain conditions including dementia and stroke.

In a scientific study of healthy, older adults ages 59 to 83, Harvard medical scientists found that study participants who regularly drank a cocoa flavanol-rich beverage made using a patented process from Mars Inc., McLean, Va., had an 8% increase in brain blood flow after one week, and 10% increase after two weeks.

In this first-of-its-kind study, the researchers found both short and long-term benefits of cocoa flavanols for brain blood flow, offering future potential for the one in seven older Americans currently living with dementia. When the flow of blood to the brain slows over time, the result may be structural damage and dementia. Scientists speculate that maintaining an increased blood flow to the brain could slow this cognitive decline.

“The totality of the research on cocoa flavanols is impressive. This is just one more study adding to an increasing body of literature connecting regular cocoa flavanol consumption to blood flow and vascular health improvements throughout the body,” says Harold Schmitz, chief science officer at Mars, which has supported research on cocoa flavanols for more than 15 years. “Though more research is needed, these findings raise the possibility that flavanol-rich cocoa products could be developed to help slow brain decline in older age.”

Contrary to statements often made in the popular media, the collective research demonstrates that the vascular effects of cocoa flavanols are independent of general antioxidant effects that cocoa flavanols exhibit in a test tube, outside of the body. While research aimed at studying the potential role of cocoa flavanols in the context of blood vessel and circulatory function continues, a number of previously published studies already suggest that the consumption of cocoa flavanols can have important beneficial effects on the function of the body’s network of blood vessels. The body of research not only suggests that cocoa flavanols may provide a dietary approach to maintaining cardiovascular function and health, but also points at new possibilities for cocoa flavanol-based interventions for vascular complications associated with cognitive performance, skin health and age-related blood vessel dysfunction.

Separately, in a study published in the January issue of the Journal of Nutrition, research from scientists at Oxford University, United Kingdom, and the University of Oslo, Norway, suggests that a moderate diet rich in wine, tea and chocolate enhances cognitive performance in the elderly.

Study co-author David Smith, a founding director of the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Aging, said wine, tea and chocolate are rich in flavonoids found in grapes, tea leaves and cocoa beans. However, he warned that too much of the trio are known to be bad for the health.

“We found that the effect was maximal with as little as a small glass of wine,” he says.
Previous research on wine, tea and chocolate found that each product contains relatively high levels of flavonoids, and all three are also associated with a lower risk of dementia and greater cognitive performance. The scientists wanted to see if a yearlong diet that included low levels of all three could lead to better brain activity.

Researchers found that participants who consumed combinations of between 1 to 3.5oz of wine, 10g of chocolate and up to 200ml of tea, preferably green, per day had a 41% to 53% lower risk of performing poorly on cognitive tests than other participants. The different foods had different effects. Those who only drank wine regularly did better than those who only consumed chocolate. Those who consumed all three performed best.

The results did not tend to improve for those participants who consumed greater quantities of wine, tea or chocolate. The authors warn that the test is observational and not clinical.

Maybe someone needs to investigate the benefits of consuming dairy foods loaded with cocoa flavanols. Such a beverage or frozen dessert would appeal to Baby Boomers looking to defy the aging process.