Research has demonstrated that consumption of naturally occurring compounds in cocoa can lead to a range of circulatory health benefits including the first observed brain and cardiovascular blood flow improvements, according to research published in the latest issue of the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology, in a supplement that focuses on the potential health benefits of flavanol-rich cocoa.
Previous studies have demonstrated that the consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa can improve blood vessel function and may even reduce the formation of damaging clots. This new, published research extends these findings by showing that the regular consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa can lead to improved blood flow in menopausal women with elevated cholesterol, as well as reporting for the first time that the increase in blood flow following flavanol-rich cocoa consumption can also be observed in the brain.
"The totality of this research is impressive and gives us new insights into how cocoa flavanols may improve health in a variety of ways not previously known," said Harold Schmitz, PhD, Chief Science Officer of Mars, Incorporated, which has conducted and supported a majority of the research on cocoa flavanols and health for more than 15 years. "This publication, resulting from the science presented at an international meeting convened last year in Lucerne, Switzerland, is exciting as it adds to the growing body of scientific research demonstrating that the consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa can potentially lead to a range of physiological benefits resulting from improved blood flow."
Researchers studied the effects of cocoa flavanols in vitro (test tube) and in human subjects, on various age groups, on women and men in order to better understand the potential benefits of these natural food compounds. Among the new studies, the highlights include:
- Brain blood flow in the elderly and young adults: Two independent studies, one in a healthy elderly population and another in young healthy women, demonstrate that the consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa can increase blood flow to the brain. This work, the first of its kind with cocoa, suggests that this cocoa may have promising effects on cognitive performance – particularly promising because decreased brain blood flow is associated with dementia and deterioration in brain function.
- Blood flow in postmenopausal women: Scientists found that the regular consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa resulted in a significant increase in blood flow in hypercholesterolemic postmenopausal women, suggesting that this cocoa may improve vascular function in this population with higher cardiovascular risk.
- Different flavanols have different functions: Flavanol-rich cocoa has previously been shown to decrease the potential for formation of blood clots. In this new investigation, researchers coupled studies of platelet function in humans with in vitro studies with highly purified flavanols from cocoa. The results of these studies support that cocoa flavanols may have beneficial effects on platelets, and report for the first time that certain flavanols and flavanol-rich cocoa itself may also reduce the cascade of events that can lead to vascular damage.
- Benefits for a high cocoa flavanol consuming population: Previous research has identified the island dwelling Kuna Indians of Panama as a population with an unusual absence of age-related hypertension and cardiovascular disease, despite a level of salt intake comparable to that in Western societies. The investigators conducted a comprehensive dietary survey to see if specific dietary factors may be responsible. Most notable was the finding the Kuna consumed high levels of cocoa, confirmed by analysis to be rich in flavanols, suggesting that there may be a link between the habitual intake of flavanol-rich cocoa and their low incidence of vascular disease.
"We are excited by this research as it provides promising evidence that cocoa flavanols may have an important role not only in treating, but also possibly preventing a range of health issues related to blood flow problems," said Schmitz. "This new science sets the stage for the potential development of cocoa flavanol based products useful for a wide variety of important public health issues impacted by decreased blood flow, ranging from, cardiovascular health to dementia."
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