Hot chocolate is the perfect companion for those cold winter nights (and mornings and afternoons) when all you need is a little snuggle and warmth. But this delicious chocolaty brew not only packs the good stuff, it also has some pretty amazing benefits as well.
Cocoa powder is a great source of flavanoids which are high in antioxidants. Antioxidants play an important role in one’s overall health – and are natural compounds found in some foods that help neutralize free radicals in our bodies. Free radicals are substances that occur naturally in our bodies, but attack the fats, protein and the DNA in our cells, which can cause different types of diseases and accelerate the aging process.
Furthermore, there have been studies done about the health benefits of red wine, but when measured on the same per-serving basis, the antioxidant concentration in hot chocolate was almost twice as strong as red wine. Cornell University researchers found that cocoa’s concentration was two to three times stronger than that of green tea and four to five times stronger than that of black tea.
Drinking hot chocolate made specifically from unsweetened dark chocolate can carry significant health benefits. Researchers at Harvard Medical School analyzed 21 studies that involved more than 2,500 participants and found that drinking chocolate is associated with reduced blood pressure, improved blood vessel health and lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and elevating HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Earlier evidence also suggested that drinking cocoa may be responsible for the very low incidence of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
Packed with minerals, just one tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder contains 3 to 9 percent of the recommended daily intake of iron, manganese, magnesium and zinc. In addition to carrying oxygen, iron helps make red blood cells and is essential for your immune system. Manganese is a component of enzymes that form cartilage and bones, metabolize nutrients and function as antioxidants inside every cell in your body. Magnesium helps produce energy and maintain a normal heart rhythm. Zinc is vital for the production and development of new cells, including immune system cells. Without enough zinc, the number of bacteria-fighting cells goes down and you become more susceptible to illness.
Additionally, cocoa contains the substance phenethylamine, which is a neurotransmitter found in the brain that acts as a mood elevator and natural antidepressant.The University of Michigan Health System (UMIM) states that cocoa may also have the ability to boost endorphins, which act as natural “happy” opiates and are responsible for the highs that are often felt after exercising, laughing, having sex or winning the lottery. Finally, UMIM says that cocoa may boost serotonin, which is the neurotransmitter that antidepressants target in order to boost overall happiness levels.
Cocoa, used throughout history as a folk medicine, may actually have significant health benefits, according to a new study by Harvard researchers.
Their analysis of 21 studies with 2,575 participants shows that cocoa consumption is associated with decreased blood pressure, improved blood vessel health, and improvement in cholesterol levels, among other benefits.
Eric L. Ding, PhD, of Harvard Medical School says the apparent health benefits come from polyphenolic flavonoids in cocoa that have the potential to prevent heart disease. Flavonoids are antioxidants that are commonly found in fruits, vegetables, tea, wine, and coffee.
Cocoa Flavonoids Good for Cholesterol
In addition to decreasing blood pressure and improving blood vessel health, consumption of flavonoid-rich cocoa decreased “bad” LDL cholesterol among people under age 50, and increased good HDL cholesterol, the analysis showed.
Further, consumption of flavonoid-rich cocoa did not change triglyceride levels of study participants or make them obese. Triglycerides are a type of blood fat that have been linked to coronary artery disease when levels are elevated above normal.
There are many reasons why you might want to give someone chocolate on Valentine’s Day. There’s the tradition of it, and the idea of sweets for your sweetheart. Here’s another tempting reason: certain compounds in chocolate, called cocoa flavanols, have recently been linked with improved thinking skills. But will a gift of chocolate boost your valentine’s brain power?
Italian researchers tested the effects of cocoa flavanols in 90 healthy 61- to 85-year-olds whose memories and thinking skills were in good shape for their ages. Participants drank a special brew of cocoa flavanols each day. One group’s brew contained a low amount of cocoa flavanols (48 milligrams [mg] a day), another’s contained a medium amount (520 mg), and the third’s contained a high amount (993 mg).
After eight weeks, people who consumed medium and high amounts of cocoa flavanols every day made significant improvements on tests that measured attention, executive function, and memory. The findings were published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
A similar study by these researchers published in 2012 showed that daily consumption of cocoa flavanols was associated with improved thinking skills in older adults who did have thinking problems, a condition called mild cognitive impairment. And both studies found that cocoa flavanols were associated with reduced blood pressure and improved insulin resistance.
What’s the magic?
Flavanols are a type of plant nutrient found in many foods and drinks, such as tea, red wine, blueberries, apples, pears, cherries, and peanuts. They are particularly abundant in the seeds of the cacao tree—cacao beans. Fermenting, drying, and roasting cacao beans yields cocoa powder, which is used to make chocolate.
Flavanols in cocoa have been studied for many years. They have been shown to help lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, prevent blood clots, and fight cell damage.
How might cocoa flavanols boost thinking skills? This hasn’t been directly studied in humans. “From laboratory and animal studies, we know that flavanols facilitate brain cell connections and survival, and protect brain cells from toxins or the negative effects of inflammation,” says Dr. Miguel Alonso-Alonso, a neuroscientist with a strong interest in nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He wrote an editorial supporting the findings of the Italian study.
Flavanols in chocolate
If you give someone chocolate this Valentine’s Day, are you giving that person cocoa flavanols? Yes, but not nearly as much as the volunteers consumed in the Italian study.
The amount of cocoa used in chocolate varies by manufacturer. And flavanols are often destroyed in the production of chocolate. Dark chocolate has more cocoa and more flavanols than milk chocolate. The amount in dark chocolate can range from 100 mg in 100 grams of chocolate (about 3 ounces) to 2,000 mg.
What you can do
It’s possible to get a megadose of cocoa flavanols from supplements and fortified powders that promise high doses. But consumer groups studying the amounts of cocoa flavanols in products have found that the actual amount in supplements and cocoa powders varies widely. The best way of getting cocoa flavanols is through cocoa powder that is as natural as possible and has not been processed through the Dutch method, which reduces the content of flavanols. Such cocoa powder will be bitter, though.
You may not need a megadose. “The benefits of cocoa flavanols on cardiovascular health are well established, and for the general population a daily intake of 200 mg of cocoa flavanols is starting to emerge as a potential target within the context of a balanced diet,” says Dr. Alonso-Alonso.
A new study conducted in older adults with hypertension and/or diabetes has found that drinking just two cups a day of cocoa for a month was associated with significant improvements in cognitive function and blood flow in the brain.
Higher levels of flavanols—the antioxidant compounds credited with cocoa and dark chocolate health benefits—made no difference. Overall, however, participants saw brain benefits once they started drinking either flavanol-enhanced cocoa or a lower-flavanol cocoa.
“Researchers are still trying to discover the optimal intake of flavanols,” comments Jeffrey B. Blumberg, PhD, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Antioxidants Research Laboratory. “That dose, along with different durations of consumption, may likely differ depending on factors like age, sex and health status. Also, the possibility should be considered that some of this apparent benefit may be derived from other bioactive compounds in cocoa.”
COCOA BEAN BEFEFITS: The flavanols found in cocoa and dark chocolate are part of a larger group of compounds called flavonoids that occur naturally in plant foods—in this case, the cocoa bean from which cocoa and chocolate are made. Flavanols are also found in red wine and tea. The flavanols in the cocoa bean, however, are a unique mixture of these phytonutrients. Scientists have found that cocoa flavanols positively affect the circulatory system and help maintain the flexibility of arteries. While this is obviously important to heart health, your brain also depends on adequate blood flow to function.
In the new study, published in Neurology, Farzaneh A. Sorond, MD, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and colleagues tested the effects of cocoa consumption on 60 volunteers, average age 73. Although none had dementia, 17 suffered from a condition called impaired neurovascular coupling (NVC), a measure of blood flow in the brain as it relates to nerve cells (neurons). Researchers initially tested two levels of flavanols in cocoa, consumed twice a day for 30 days. Participants were encouraged to alter their diets to compensate for the extra calories in the cocoa.
No significant difference was seen between the two types of cocoa, so the results from both groups were merged. Participants free of impaired NVC showed no significant benefits from cocoa consumption.
But the small group of volunteers with impaired NVC saw dramatic changes after just a month of cocoa intake. Neurovascular coupling improved by more than double, and scores on standard cognitive tests jumped 30%.
BETTER BLOOD FLOW: Indications that cocoa flavanols might improve blood-vessel function in the brain were further supported by data from several other studies presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Researchers from the University of Nottingham Medical School in the UK reported findings that cocoa consumption resulted in increased blood flow to areas of the brain.
Lead scientist Ian A. Macdonald, PhD, commented, “This raises the possibility that certain food components like cocoa flavanols may be beneficial in increasing brain blood flow and enhancing brain function among older adults or for others in situations where they may be cognitively impaired, such as fatigue or sleep deprivation.”
Should you start sipping cocoa to support your brain? Tufts’ Blumberg advises, “The available evidence about the potential benefits of cocoa on the brain is far too limited to make any recommendations. However, it is noteworthy that the EU Commission recently approved a health claim that 200 milligrams of cocoa flavanols can ‘help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow.’ This dose is equivalent to 2.5 grams high-flavanol cocoa powder or 10 grams of high-flavanol dark chocolate (about one-fifth of a regular size chocolate bar).