Cocoa flavanols – those phenom compounds in cocoa that seem to have great health benefits, such as improving blood flow and helping manage blood glucose levels, but some recent research pulls together just how they may be useful in metabolic syndrome.
Let me get through the basics so we can talk about the good stuff. Metabolic Syndrome constitutes a group of conditions:
- High triglyceride levels
- High fasting blood sugar
- Large waist circumference
- Low HDL cholesterol (the good type of cholesterol)
- At least borderline high blood pressure
If you have any three of these, or if you’re taking medication to control three of these, you probably have metabolic syndrome. You also have lots of company, since 1 in 3 Americans has it, too, according to a 2015 study, although many don’t know it. Having even one of these conditions increases your risk for common but serious chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. These are impacted by diet, so having metabolic syndrome usually means your diet and eating style needs a closer look. Sounds awful, but it isn’t, and you may get some help where you never expected any.
Cocoa flavanols to the rescue
Not everyone is aware that cocoa is one of the most, if not the most, concentrated sources of antioxidants in the diets. We may get a larger quantity of antioxidants from other foods, like tea, coffee, fruits and vegetables, but that’s because we eat larger amounts of them and on a daily basis.
A recent review in the highly respected Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry looked at the ways cocoa may act to be healthful and it may be different than you thought (for those of us “chocolate-science nerds” who even thought about such things). After looking at over 244 published papers, here’s what the authors concluded about cocoa flavanols and how they lessen metabolic syndrome:
- Cocoa flavanols appear to slow down the action of digestive enzymes, delaying spikes in blood glucose levels, possibly by limiting or delaying the digestion of starches, and encouraging better insulin response. Nice news: a larger dose seems to be most effective, but it’s way too early to suggest any “more is better” recommendations.
- Regular cocoa consumption seems to have “pre-biotic” effects, e.g. regularly exposing the gut environment to cocoa flavanols encourages growth of good bacteria that in turn helps the lining of the colon function more effectively. How so? It seems to reduce the absorption of endotoxins (the stuff that’s released when bacteria disintegrate). Endotoxins that get absorbed into the bloodstream can cause things like plaque buildup and disruption of insulin regulation. Less of these is better.
- Cocoa flavanols also help insulin sensitivity in muscles and peripheral tissue. However, they’re not well absorbed. They get broken down by the gut bacteria, but the resulting metabolites (products of the breakdown) do get absorbed and are likely what is doing the good work in the peripheral tissues.
It’s not over
Metabolic syndrome, and especially type 2 diabetes, are associated with chronic low-grade inflammation. Through a variety of mechanisms, the powerful antioxidant activity of cocoa flavanols may also help reduce this inflammation, and in an enjoyable way.
As a clinician, this is music to my ears: something my patients like hearing and that I like explaining. Chocolate and cocoa flavanols are a win-win and make me love the power of food.
There’s still much more to know, however. Many of the studies in humans were of short duration, so it’s not known if observed benefits fade after a few weeks or months. Dark chocolate is where the flavanols reside, (aim for cocoa powder — the most concentrated source, or 70% bars) but specific doses of cocoa for each condition and best ways to administer cocoa for maximum effect are also unknown.
- There’s excellent news on potential benefits of cocoa and its flavanol compounds, and their potential impact on metabolic syndrome, diabetes, blood glucose control, and other chronic health risks.
- We still need to remember that the ways in which we consume cocoa – bars, truffles, hot chocolate, etc. provide calories. Too many of those – from ANY source — will contribute to weight gain, one of the hallmark hazards of metabolic syndrome.
- So it is with chocolate and cocoa as it is with alcohol: eat with your head, not over it. An ounce a day of the darker stuff, or a good scoop of cocoa powder in a drink, is just fine. NOTE: If the ingredient label says the chocolate is “processed with alkali” or “Dutched”, the flavanols have been removed. Skip this stuff if you want the benefits.
[Personal note to researchers: please try to avoid concluding that a pill is the best way to get cocoa flavanols! We’re real people and would be far more likely to get recommended “doses” if they were in the form of edible chocolate and cocoa. Just saying.]