Dark Chocolate Health Benefits: Beat High Blood Pressure

Dark-Chocolate-Health-BenefitsOne of the best-researched dark chocolate health benefits is its ability to lower blood pressure. It’s been known for some time now that the flavanols in cocoa are primarily responsible for dark chocolate’s beneficial effects on blood pressure, but the details are still being investigated. Now, a groundbreaking new study is the first to investigate how cocoa flavanols reverse age-related increases in blood pressure and favorably affect other hallmarks of cardiovascular aging.

As we age, our arteries generally become stiffer and other specific changes take place within the cardiovascular system which impair circulatory function, blood pressure, and cardiac performance. For instance, the endothelium (the inner lining of blood vessels that controls their constriction and dilation) becomes dysfunctional as imbalances develop between vasodilating and vasoconstricting substances. Overall, these age-associated alterations increase the risk for heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease.

Cocoa flavanols reverse age-related vascular impairments

The latest study to investigate dark chocolate health benefits was the FLAVIOLA AGE study. It showed that cocoa flavanols, such as those found in high quality dark chocolate, significantly decrease systolic blood pressure (the top number) in healthy older adults, essentially by reversing these age-associated impairments in cardiovascular function.[1] 

The researchers compared the effects of cocoa flavanol intake on blood pressure and other measures of cardiovascular function in healthy young and elderly people. The randomized, controlled, double-blind trial compared 22 young and 20 elderly healthy men who consumed a drink containing 450 mg of cocoa flavanols or a placebo drink twice daily for 14 days.

Cocoa flavanols reverse age-related cardiovascular risk

The results showed that after two weeks of cocoa flavanol consumption, the average systolic blood pressure in the elderly group decreased by 7 mm Hg, while it remained unchanged in the young group. Endothelial function significantly improved in both groups, as did other markers of cardiovascular aging, including markers of circulatory function and cardiac performance. The researchers concluded that “cocoa flavanol intake reverses age-related burden of cardiovascular risk in healthy elderly, highlighting the potential of dietary flavanols to maintain cardiovascular health.”

The FLAVIOLA AGE study was certainly not the first study to show that flavanol-rich dark chocolate and cocoa products lower blood pressure.[2] Other studies have found blood pressure-lowering effects in healthy people with normal blood pressure and in people diagnosed with hypertension.[3] Overall, regular consumption of chocolate and cocoa products is linked to lower blood pressure and to reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease.[4]

How much dark chocolate should you eat?

It’s still unclear exactly how many flavanols you need to consume to get dark chocolate health benefits for high blood pressure. In the majority of studies, the subjects in the dark chocolate or cocoa group consumed a total of 500 to 750 mg of flavanols per day.[2] The FLAVIOLA AGE study used 900 mg total flavanols per day.[1]

To get this much, you may need to purchase a chocolate or cocoa product that has been specifically formulated to contain a high amount of flavanols. Unfortunately, the exact flavanol content in dark chocolate and cocoa powders varies widely and is not typically measured or listed on the label except for the special high-flavanol chocolates.

In general, the darker the chocolate, the more cocoa powder—and thus the more flavanols—it contains, but this doesn’t always hold true.[5] Nevertheless, it is generally recommended that dark chocolate health benefits are attainable from dark chocolate bars containing at least 70% cocoa.

To get the most benefits, enjoy a few small squares every day for at least two weeks before deciding whether it’s working or not. If not, you may need to switch brands or up your dose.

Testing flavanols and heavy metals in dark chocolate and cocoa

Recent testing of dark chocolate bars and cocoa powders by ConsumerLab.com found that although cocoa powders are generally more concentrated in flavanols and more economical than dark chocolate bars, most cocoa powders they tested, including Hershey’s, Nestle’s, Navitas, Trader Joe’s, and NOW’s, contained high concentrations of the toxic heavy metal cadmium.[5]

The only powder that didn’t contain cadmium was CocoaVia by Mars
which is a drink mix specifically formulated to be high in flavanols and contains 32.5 mg total flavanols per gram. The lowest cost way to get flavanols from the bars they tested was through
Endangered Species Panther, Natural Dark Chocolate (88% Cocoa).

It provided 11 mg flavanols per gram.

Additional dark chocolate health benefits

Keep in mind that dark chocolate is beneficial for much more than just lowering blood pressure. For more information on dark chocolate health benefits, see the following posts:

Eating more chocolate or cocoa is probably one of the most pleasant ways to improve your health! Add a few squares or a serving of a cocoa powder each day and monitor your blood pressure for two weeks. If you don’t see a difference, try increasing your chocolate consumption. Be sure to come back and tell us how it worked! Just leave a comment below.

[1] Age (Dordr). 2015 Jun;37(3):9794.
[2] Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Aug 15;8:CD008893.
[3] Am J Hypertens. 2010 Jan;23(1):97-103.
[4] Arch Intern Med. 2006 Feb 27;166(4):411-7.
[5] ConsumerLab Product Review: Cocoa Powders, Dark Chocolate. Accessed 6/2/15.

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UHN Staff

University Health News is produced by the award-winning editors and authors of Belvoir Media Group’s Health & Wellness Division. Headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., with editorial offices in Florida, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, … Read More

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