With all the excess that comes among the holiday season, our health is often put on the back burner. But it is important to consider the health benefits or detriments of our holiday diets and today there is good news when it comes to cocoa – specifically cocoa flavanols.
Flavanols are a distinct group of naturally occurring compounds that can be found in a variety of foods such as tea, red wine, blueberries and raw cocoa. Cocoa flavanols refers to the group of bioactives found naturally in fresh cocoa beans. Cocoa is an especially rich source of flavanols and the type and mixture of flavanols and procyanidins found in cocoa is unique. Many studies show cocoa flavanols have a range of proven health benefits, including improved circulation and cardiovascular health. A new study from the University of Dusseldorf in Germany was published in Age and the British Journal of Nutrition (BJN) stating that cocoa flavanol intake reduces 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease and lowers blood pressure in healthy people by improving cardiovascular function and lessening the burden on the heart that comes with the aging and stiffening of arteries.
The chocolate producing giant Mars, Incorporated is a member of FLAVIOLA – a pan-European research project. The project aims to provide crucial insights into the nutritional and biomedical properties of flavanols ranging from the cellular level to their impact on the population at large. FLAVIOLA’s vision is that through collaborative and cutting-edge research, it will lay the foundation for the development of evidence-based dietary recommendations and innovative food products that harness the benefits of flavanols for cardiovascular health.
As we age, our blood vessels become less flexible and less able to expand to let blood flow and circulate normally, and the risk of hypertension also increases. “With the world population getting older, the incidence of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and stroke will only increase,” says Professor Malte Kelm, Professor of Cardiology, Pulmonary Diseases and Vascular Medicine at University Hospital Düsseldorf and Scientific Director of FLAVIOLA. “It is therefore pivotal that we understand the positive impact diet can have on cardiovascular disease risk. As part of this, we want to know what role flavanol-containing foods could play in maintaining the health of the heart and blood vessels.”
Earlier studies have demonstrated that cocoa flavanol intake improves the elasticity of blood vessels and lowers blood pressure — but, for the most part, these investigations have focused on high-risk individuals like smokers and people that have already been diagnosed with conditions like hypertension and coronary heart disease. The two studies in Age and BJN are the first to look at the different effects dietary cocoa flavanols can have on the blood vessels of healthy, low-risk individuals with no signs or symptoms of cardiovascular disease.
In the study published in Age, two groups of 22 young ( less than 35 years of age) and 20 older (50-80 years of age) healthy men consumed either a flavanol-containing drink, or a flavanol-free control drink, twice a day for two weeks. The researchers then measured the effect of flavanols on hallmarks of cardiovascular aging, such as arterial stiffness (as measured by pulse wave velocity), blood pressure and flow-mediated vasodilation (the extent to which blood vessels dilate in response to nitric oxide). They found that vasodilation was significantly improved in both age groups that consumed flavanols over the course of the study (by 33% in the younger age group and 32% in the older age group over the control intervention). In the older age group, a statistically and clinically significant decrease in systolic blood pressure was also seen.
In the second study, published in BJN, the researchers extended their investigations to a larger group (100) of healthy middle-aged men and women (35-60 years) with low risk of CVD. The participants were randomly and blindly assigned into groups that consumed either a flavanol-containing drink or a flavanol-free control drink, twice a day for four weeks. The researchers also measured cholesterol levels in the study groups, in addition to vasodilation, arterial stiffness and blood pressure.
“We found that intake of flavanols significantly improves several of the hallmarks of cardiovascular health,” says Professor Kelm. In particular, the researchers found that consuming flavanols for four weeks significantly increased flow-mediated vasodilation by 21%. Increased flow-mediated vasodilation is a sign of improved endothelial function and has been shown by some studies to be associated with decreased risk of developing CVD. In addition, taking flavanols decreased blood pressure and improved the blood cholesterol profile by decreasing total cholesterol. The combined results of these studies demonstrate that flavanols are effective at mitigating age-related changes in blood vessels, and could thereby reduce the risk of CVD in healthy individuals. Professor Kelm comments that “the reduction seen in risk scores suggests that flavanols may have primary preventive potential for CVD.” Other longer-term studies, such as the 5-year COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS) of 18,000 men and women, are now underway to investigate the health potential of flavanols on a much larger scale.
Although dietary intake of flavanols has been shown to have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular health, the compounds are often destroyed during normal food processing. So don’t take this information as a license to add excessive amount of chocolate candy to your diet. Rather look for less processed sources of cocoa flavanols. For more information, visit Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science at www.marscocoascience.com .