What You Didn’t Know About Cocoa Flavanols and Brain Health
It’s the kind of wishful-thinking headline chocolate lovers eat up: “7 Benefits of Dark Chocolate for Healthier Brain.” But behind the sweet clickbait there’s bitter news—it’s actually cocoa flavanols that offer health benefits. And flavanols are easily destroyed during processing. So while chocolate is definitely a tasty treat, most contain very little—sometimes none!—of the good stuff you’ve heard about.
The good news is that cocoa flavanols can be extracted directly from high-quality cocoa beans, then carefully processed and concentrated. And that’s the smart way to get cocoa flavanols into your diet.
The even better news is this: by taking a cocoa flavanol supplement regularly, you can support everything from heart health and healthy blood pressure levels to brain health.
That’s what we’re spotlighting today—cocoa flavanols and brain health.
But First…What Exactly are Cocoa Flavanols?
There won’t be a science quiz after this section, but if cocoa flavanols are part of your daily routine you’d probably ace it!
Cocoa flavanols are naturally-occurring, plant-based compounds found in the beans of the cacao plant, (aka cocoa tree). Flavanols are found in a variety of plants, including tea, berries, grapes (that whole idea of “red wine is good for your heart…” same concept here), apples and—of course—cocoa.
While there are many foods that contain flavanols, each of the flavanol types in these foods is distinct. One interesting fact about cocoa is that it can be a particularly rich source of a flavanol form that our bodies absorb more easily—and that offers important benefits to our blood vessels. Want the scientific details? Click here!
Flavanols are bioactive, which means they work to promote good health. Numerous studies with cocoa flavanols have shown that their intake can improve the function and health of blood vessels ... which is good not only for your blood vessels but for your heart and entire body as well.
Think of the cardiovascular system as a superhighway, circulating on average more than 2,000 gallons of blood to all parts of your body each day. If there are any slow-downs along the way, your heart, brain, muscles and all the important parts of your body don’t get the oxygen and nutrients they need to stay in peak form. The result? Your body’s performance gets sluggish.
One way flavanols give the cardiovascular system a boost is by increasing the body’s pool of nitric oxide (NO), a molecule that tells the blood vessel walls to relax. When their walls relax the vessels get wider, giving them more biological bandwidth to carry that oxygen and other vital nutrients to their organ systems. And when tissues are bathed in the nourishment they need, they show their appreciation by performing better, head to toe.
The bad news about cocoa flavanols is that they’re very fragile. Even rough handling of the cocoa beans can damage the flavanol structures, while most processing methods used to make chocolate flat out destroy them. Hold that thought in your (flavanol-enhanced, perhaps?) working memory, because we’ll come back to it after talking about cocoa flavanol’s cognitive benefits.
Why Cocoa Flavanols are the Smart Choice for a Healthier Brain
Not-a-fun-fact: once we pass early adulthood, the decline in our ability to think, learn and remember begins (slowly, thank goodness). Fortunately, there are ways to help keep you at your best.
For starters, eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, regular exercise and proper sleep are all linked to supporting brain health.
Another top tip: take advantage of the secret brain-health-weapon hiding in the humble cocoa bean.
Multiple research studies have now shown that cocoa flavanols do indeed have a positive impact on brain health and cognitive performance. In a study done in collaboration with researchers of the University of L’Aquila in Italy, 90 subjects with evidence of mild cognitive decline consumed three levels of cocoa flavanols in dairy-based drinks during an eight-week period. The patients who were randomly assigned higher levels of cocoa flavanols showed a significant improvement in cognitive function relative to those taking the lowest level of flavanols.
The same research team conducted another study on older adults without evidence of cognitive decline. In just eight weeks of taking cocoa flavanols, they showed:
- Significantly faster testing times. Subjects who drank moderate and high concentrations of cocoa flavanols significantly reduced the amount of time they needed to finish the cognitive function tests.
- Significantly improved word recall. Subjects in the moderate and high flavanol consumption groups showed significantly increased ability to recall words, with the amount of improvement correlated to concentration of cocoa flavanols. Those consuming 400 mg a day saw a 13% improvement in performance, while those consuming 750 mg saw a remarkable 31% improvement.
- Significantly improved overall cognitive functioning. Looking at all the tests combined, the study showed subjects who consumed higher concentrations of cocoa flavanols had better overall cognitive performance.
Together, these studies support that making cocoa flavanols a part of your daily diet can help improve cognitive functioning, protect against degeneration, and even help reverse decline.
CocoaVia™: the Cocoa Extract Supplement for Brain Health
Now, back to our discussion about chocolate and cocoa processing (remember?)
To make chocolate, you have to ferment, roast, and often alkalize the cocoa beans. And that’s the kiss of death for their flavanols. These highly delicate structures simply can’t withstand the typical chocolate-making process.
For that reason, we recommend taking cocoa flavanols as supplements that guarantee the level of cocoa flavanols they contain. Our favorite, naturally, is CocoaVia™ cocoa extract supplement.
To preserve fresh cocoa beans’ abundant flavanols, scientists at Mars (who have been studying cocoa flavanols for decades now) developed a proprietary process that begins with the gentler handling of the raw cocoa beans all the way through to finished products. This proprietary process, known as Cocoapro®, begins from the moment the beans are harvested and continues through to finished product, ensuring CocoaVia™ products have the highest possible levels of cocoa flavanols.
A daily serving of CocoaVia™ extract capsules is guaranteed to have 450 mg of flavanols (the same level used in the CoCoA study), five calories and zero grams of fat, making CocoaVia™ a concentrated, convenient, trusted choice. CocoaVia™ is also available in several powdered flavors, ready to mix in to drinks or food.
Comparison: To get the same amount of cocoa flavanols in a 30-day supply of CocoaVia™, you’d have to eat more than 15 pounds of dark chocolate—or more than 38,000 calories and 3,840 grams of fat—with no guarantee of cocoa flavanol content.
Simply put, taking CocoaVia™ as part of your daily diet is a no-brainer.
The flavanols in CocoaVia™ are one of the most highly-researched plant-based bioactives in the world. They’re backed by 20+ years of rigorous research and more than 30 clinical studies proving the efficacy of cocoa flavanols across a variety of health benefits, including heart, brain and total body health. Learn more at our See the Science page.