So says a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study shows that cocoa's antioxidants — called flavonoids — coax the body into making more nitric oxide, which relaxes the blood vessels.
The researchers included Norman Hollenberg, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. He tells WebMD that cocoa's flavonoids could improve heart health.
"Now, would it replace giving up cigarettes? No, I don't think so," Hollenberg says. "Would it replace adjusting your lipids? No, I don't think so. But it's a very powerful factor and I think it probably ranks with cholesterol as an important factor in heart attacks."
Don't Reach For A Mug Yet
Though several products already contain flavonoid-rich cocoa powder, a flavonoid-rich cocoa drink isn't one of them yet, says Hollenberg.
He explains that cocoa's flavonoids taste bitter and often get destroyed to make cocoa taste better. "It's all in the processing," he says.
People should closely examine products touting flavonoids, Hollenberg says. "You have to demand that they tell you the flavonoid content.
"I mean, I notice that some of the ads on cocoa say that 'This contains more than 70 percent cocoa powder,' which is a nice claim but it has nothing to do with flavonoids. And most people don't measure flavonoids, so they don't tell you," Hollenberg continues.
Flavonoids are found in many plants, including onions, broccoli, and tea. "Cocoa stands by itself; it's extraordinarily rich" in flavonoids, says Hollenberg.
Could you skip cocoa and get the same amount of flavonoids from other foods? "Well, yes and no," Hollenberg says. "You have to eat a lot of broccoli and onions and drink a lot of tea, but you can."
What About Chocolate?
Chocolate also contains flavonoids, "but the problem with chocolate is the burden of fat it carries," Hollenberg says.
"So it's hard to make chocolate a health food, whereas the cocoa has the fat squeezed out of it, so it could be a health food," he continues.
"Now, I'm hoping that people actually make a flavonoid-rich cocoa that will be available for sale and that people incorporate into their diets. It hasn't happened yet, but I'm hoping it will," says Hollenberg.
The study he worked on was backed by candy maker Mars Inc. Here is an overview of the tests that were done and their results.
In one set of tests, healthy young men drank beverages made from cocoa powder that was high or low in a type of flavonoid called flavonols. Mars supplied the cocoa powder.