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2017 Cocoa Research Update

2017 Cocoa Research Update



  • Chocolate has been revered for centuries, with the Mayan and Aztec civilizations considering cocoa beans a gift from the gods. Cocoa, and the end-product chocolate, are rich sources of polyphenolic compounds, with cocoa containing the highest flavanol content of all foods.(1) These compounds include catechin and epicatechin. In addition, cocoa contains the flavonols quercetin and isoquercetin.(2)

    Research suggests that cocoa compounds can contribute to cardiovascular, cognitive, and skin health through multiple mechanisms. For one thing, these cocoa compounds have the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and support neural transmission and synapse growth. They also support cardiovascular health by enhancing mitochondrial function and antioxidant benefits, improving endothelial function, exerting anti-inflammatory effects, and supporting vasodilation of blood vessels.(3) In addition, they confer anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in skin, thereby promoting skin health.(4)

    Several recent studies summarized here confirm the health-protective role of cocoa and chocolate consumption. Some studies also point to the fact that these benefits might best be achieved through moderate, but not excessive, intake.

    References:
    1. Blumberg JB et al., “The science of cocoa flavanols: bioavailability, emerging evidence, and proposed mechanisms,” Advances in Nutrition, vol. 5, no. 5 (September 2014): 547-549
    2. Andres-Lacueva C et al., “Flavanol and flavonol contents of cocoa powder products: influence of the manufacturing process,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, vol. 56, no. 9 (May 2008): 3111-3117
    3. Jumar A et al., “Cocoa flavanol cardiovascular effects beyond blood pressure reduction,” Journal of Clinical Hypertension, vol. 18, no. 4 (April 2016): 352-358
    4. Yoon HS et al., “Cocoa flavanol supplementation influences skin conditions of photo-aged women: a 24-week double-blind, randomized, controlled trial,” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 146, no. 1 (January 2016): 46-50


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    Photo © iStockphoto.com/AndreyGorulko

  • Insulin Resistance
    A current area of research interest is how cocoa and chocolate consumption may affect blood sugar metabolism.

    A recent study led by Ala’a Alkerwi from the Luxembourg Institute of Health (Strassen, Luxembourg) looked at the link between chocolate consumption and insulin resistance in 1153 adults aged 18-69 residing in Luxembourg.(5) A food frequency questionnaire was used to assess chocolate intake, while blood glucose and insulin levels were assessed to calculate the measure of insulin resistance known as HOMA-IR. In addition, liver function markers, including serum γ-glutamyl-transpeptidase (γ-GT), serum aspartate transaminase (AST), and serum alanine transaminase (ALT), were assessed. In general, the researchers noted that consumers of chocolate were more likely to be younger, physically active, affluent people with higher education levels and fewer chronic health issues compared to those who didn’t consume chocolate.

    After excluding those individuals who were on antidiabetic drugs, higher chocolate consumption was associated with lower insulin resistance (calculated as HOMA-IR), lower serum insulin levels, and lower liver enzymes, including γ-GT and ALT, suggesting that chocolate consumption may improve liver enzymes and protect against insulin resistance, a risk factor for cardiometabolic issues.

    References:
    5. Alkerwi A et al., “Daily chocolate consumption is inversely associated with insulin resistance and liver enzymes in the Observation of Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Luxembourg study,” The British Journal of Nutrition, vol. 115, no. 9 (May 2016): 1661-1668

    Photo © iStockphoto.com/Auris

  • Heart Failure
    The cardiovascular health benefits of cocoa stem from multiple potential mechanisms. A large study conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School (Boston, MA) evaluated the association of chocolate consumption with the incidence of heart failure. In this prospective cohort study including 31,917 Swedish men aged 45-79, researchers recruited individuals with no history of myocardial infarction, diabetes, or heart failure at baseline and assessed chocolate consumption using food frequency questionnaires.(6) The men were followed between January 1, 1998, and December 31, 2011, and researchers monitored hospitalization for heart failure as well as mortality via records in Swedish registries.

    Interestingly, when compared to those with no chocolate intake, individuals consuming moderate levels of chocolate (1-3 servings per month, 1-2 servings per week, and 3-6 servings per week) had progressively decreased risk of heart failure. Notably, however, those consuming more than one serving of chocolate per day were shown to have an increased risk of heart failure in the cohort. While additional research is needed to clarify the findings, the authors suggest that moderate chocolate consumption may be beneficial for heart-failure risk, while higher consumption may in fact increase the risk of heart failure. 

    References:
    6. Steinhaus DA et al., “Chocolate intake and incidence of heart failure: Findings from the Cohort of Swedish Men,” American Heart Journal, vol. 183 (January 2017): 18-23

    Photo © iStockphoto.com/Eraxion

  • Arterial Health
    Furthering the potential cardiovascular health benefits of cocoa products, researchers led by Georgina Crichton from the University of South Australia (Adelaide, Australia) evaluated the relationship between dietary chocolate intake and arterial stiffness in men and women with an average age of 61.(7) In the prospective study including 508 individuals regardless of health status, researchers evaluated food frequency questionnaires at baseline to assess frequency of chocolate consumption.

    Approximately five years later, researchers assessed pulse-wave-velocity measurements, an indicator of arterial stiffness. Higher pulse wave velocity is associated with greater arterial stiffness, while lower values indicate better arterial flexibility.

    Researchers found that dietary chocolate intake was significantly associated with pulse wave velocity; however, the association was non-linear. Pulse wave velocity was highest in those with no or rare dietary consumption of chocolate. Pulse wave velocity was lowest in those consuming moderate amounts of chocolate (an average of once per week). Interestingly, those individuals consuming chocolate more than once per week on average also had higher pulse-wave-velocity values. The findings further support the concept of moderate chocolate intake being heart healthy, while higher intakes are associated with worsening of arterial health parameters.

    References:
    7. Crichton GE et al., “Relation of habitual chocolate consumption to arterial stiffness in a community-based sample: preliminary findings,” Pulse, vol. 4, no. 1 (July 2016): 28-37

    Photo © iStockphoto.com/jasminam

  • Skin Aging
    Since cocoa is rich in flavanols and other compounds with antioxidant activity, researchers have been investigating the effects of cocoa intake on skin-health parameters. In a recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study in Korean women (aged 43-86) with signs of photo-aging, Hyun-Sun Yoon and colleagues from Seoul National University (Seoul, Korea) looked at the effects of daily cocoa supplementation (320 mg total flavanols/day) for 24 weeks on signs of skin aging, including wrinkles, skin moisture, and elasticity. The researchers assessed wrinkles, skin elasticity, and hydration at baseline and at 12 and 24 weeks.

    Skin-roughness values changed significantly at 24 weeks in the cocoa group versus placebo (decrease of 8.7 versus 1.3 percentage points, respectively). Overall skin elasticity also improved significantly in the cocoa group versus placebo at both 12 and 24 weeks. However, no significant differences were noted in measures of skin hydration. Based on the results seen, the researchers noted that the cocoa supplement had beneficial effects on facial wrinkles and elasticity and may contribute to the prevention of some signs of photo aging in women.(4)

    References:
    4. Yoon HS et al., “Cocoa flavanol supplementation influences skin conditions of photo-aged women: a 24-week double-blind, randomized, controlled trial,” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 146, no. 1 (January 2016): 46-50

    Photo © Shutterstock.com/goodluz

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