The health benefits of flavanols

Cocoa flavanols are unique phytonutrients found naturally in cocoa beans and show to contribute to heart health by supporting healthy blood flow.

What are flavanols?
Flavanols are a type of polyphenol, a broad group of natural compounds found in plants. They help protect plants from environmental toxins and help repair damage. They are abundant in many foods and drinks, such as tea, red wine, blueberries, pears, cherries, and in the seeds of the cacao tree—cacao beans.

When we eat foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that we also benefit from this ‘antioxidant effect too.

Flavanols have a bitter taste and are responsible for the bitterness of pure cacao and dark chocolate.

The health benefits:
When we consume flavanols, they’re thought to have a protective or antioxidant effect. A recent study[1] has shown regular consumption of dietary flavanols can promote healthy blood vessel function.

Cocoa flavanols are unique. You’ve probably heard that dark chocolate is good for you – but why? It’s because of the flavanols. Cocoa flavanols are unique phytonutrients found naturally in cocoa beans and shown to contribute to heart health by supporting healthy blood flow.

Maintaining healthy circulation is important not just for exercise performance, but also for cardiovascular health. Although it is assumed all dark chocolate is high in flavanols, studies show that cocoa percentage has no direct correlation with the level of flavanols in chocolate.[2]

So, is chocolate good for you?
This is a key question and one that’s been covered many times in the media. Research has found that dark chocolate has a higher level of flavanols than milk chocolate but the highest cocoa samples were not necessarily the most rich in flavanols.

What makes the difference?
Processing, origin and the diversity of manufacturing methods has been shown to have a direct effect on the levels of flavanols that remain in the finished product.

There has been a call for brands to display the flavanol content on the wrapper to allow consumers to choose wisely. The good news is that most major chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep the flavanols in their processed chocolates.

What about the fat content?
The fat in chocolate comes is derived from cocoa butter and is made up of equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids. Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat.

You have heard that saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL cholesterol and a higher risk of heart disease.

Research shows, however, that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither raising nor lowering it.[3] Still, this does not mean you can eat all the dark chocolate you’d like. Watch out for those extra ingredients that can add lots of extra fat and calories. Once again as with all aspects of nutrition, it’s about moderation and balance.

Our ‘what is it called’ feature introduces some of the more unfamiliar ingredients and nutrients. Tweet us to suggest what we should focus on next issue.

References:
[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27363823
[2] https://www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2016/08/17/Higher-cocoa-chocolate-may-not-mean-more-flavanols-Study
[3] http://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJM198805123181905