The Health Benefits of Cocoa Extract

A Sweet Solution for Heart Health?

cocoa powder
Cocoa powder. Food Collection/Getty Images

Antioxidants found in cocoa may help to fight heart disease. As more and more studies reveal the heart-healthy benefits of cocoa extract, a growing number of purportedly good-for-you chocolate products are hitting the market. From cocoa supplements to fortified chocolate bars, these products claim to lower blood pressure, keep cholesterol in check, and improve overall heart health. Here's a look at some of the research behind the health benefits of cocoa extract.

1) Cardiovascular Disease

Regular consumption of cocoa products containing flavanols (a class of compounds with antioxidant effects) may reduce risk of heart disease, according to a research review published in 2008. The review's authors found that flavanol-containing products may produce positive changes in blood pressure, as well as improve function in platelets and the endothelium (a layer of cells lining the blood vessels).

Other research shows that regular consumption of cocoa extract may help protect against heart disease by decreasing oxidative stress (a destructive process that occurs when DNA-damaging free radicals overwhelm the body's ability to neutralize them).

A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology involved 16 adults, all of whom had heart disease. Twice a day for 30 days, all study members drank a beverage with a high concentration of cocoa flavanols (a type of powerful antioxidant).

Later in the study, the participants drank a different, low-flavanol beverage twice a day for 30 days.

Study results showed a 47 percent greater improvement in vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels) during the first treatment period, indicating that cocoa flavanols may help repair damaged blood vessels and increase survival among heart disease patients.

2) Cholesterol

Cocoa extract may help raise levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol, suggests a 2007 study of 25 people with either normal cholesterol levels or mildly elevated cholesterol levels. For the study, researchers split participants into two groups: One group consumed 12 grams of sugar daily for 12 weeks, while the other group consumed 12 grams of sugar and 26 grams of cocoa powder daily for the same time period. Study results showed that those in the cocoa group had a significantly greater increase in HDL cholesterol, an effect known to reduce risk of heart disease.

3) Diabetes

Following a flavanol-rich diet may help reverse blood vessel damage in people with diabetes, a small study published in 2008 shows. After 30 days of consuming flavanol-rich cocoa three times daily, a group of diabetes patients showed greater improvements in vascular function (compared to patients who weren't assigned to treatment with cocoa).

Should You Use Cocoa Extract?

More research needs to be conducted before cocoa extract can be recommended for disease prevention.

While eating dark chocolate in moderation may boost your intake of heart-healthy flavanols, it's important to limit your consumption of chocolate products containing high amounts of fat and sugar.

Previous studies suggest that garlic, fish oil, and hawthorn may also help to lower blood pressure.

If you're considering using supplements containing cocoa extract, make sure to consult your physician before beginning treatment. Self-treating and avoiding or delaying standard care can have serious consequences.

Sources:

Baba S, Osakabe N, Kato Y, Natsume M, Yasuda A, Kido T, Fukuda K, Muto Y, Kondo K. "Continuous intake of polyphenolic compounds containing cocoa powder reduces LDL oxidative susceptibility and has beneficial effects on plasma HDL-cholesterol concentrations in humans." Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 85(3):709-17.

Balzer J, Rassaf T, Heiss C, Kleinbongard P, Lauer T, Merx M, Heussen N, Gross HB, Keen CL, Schroeter H, Kelm M. "Sustained benefits in vascular function through flavanol-containing cocoa in medicated diabetic patients a double-masked, randomized, controlled trial." J Am Coll Cardiol. 2008 3;51(22):2141-9.

Erdman JW Jr, Carson L, Kwik-Uribe C, Evans EM, Allen RR. "Effects of cocoa flavanols on risk factors for cardiovascular disease." Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2008;17 Suppl 1:284-7.

Heiss C, Jahn S, Taylor M, Real WM, Angeli FS, Wong ML, Amabile N, Prasad M, Rassaf T, Ottaviani JI, Mihardja S, Keen CL, Springer ML, Boyle A, Grossman W, Glantz SA, Schroeter H, Yeghiazarians Y. Improvement of endothelial function with dietary flavanols is associated with mobilization of circulating angiogenic cells in patients with coronary artery disease. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2010 Jul 13;56(3):218-24. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2010.03.039.

Mathur S, Devaraj S, Grundy SM, Jialal I. "Cocoa products decrease low density lipoprotein oxidative susceptibility but do not affect biomarkers of inflammation in humans." J Nutr. 2002 132(12):3663-7.

National Institutes of Health. "Researchers Ask, 'Is Chocolate Good for You?'". October 21, 2005.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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