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Dark Chocolates, Cocoa & Cacao Powders, Nibs, and Supplements Review -- Sources of Flavanols
Summary: What You Need to Know About Dark Chocolates, Cocoa & Cacao Powders, Nibs, and Supplements
What are the health benefits? Cocoa-based products contain flavanols which are associated with modest potential benefits regarding blood flow, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, exercise, memory/cognition, skin wrinkles, and blood sugar control (See "What It Does")
Which product is best?Be careful! Many popular cocoa powders, cacao nibs, and some dark chocolates are contaminated with high levels of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal (see What CL Found). Fortunately, we were able to identify a few great products that minimize cadmium exposure, maximize flavanols, offer superior value, and even minimize calories without sacrificing flavor. See CL's Top Picks.
How much do I need? Clinical studies suggest the following total daily intakes of flavanols for the purposes noted below, although further research is needed to confirm benefits and optimal dosing:
To get these amounts look at the 3rd column in the Results Table below. It will show you the amount of flavanols in a serving of each product.
Is it safe? Although cocoa and chocolate products are generally safe, it may be best to limit consumption of products due to contaminants as well as calories (See How much of a danger is cadmium from cocoa and chocolate?) Be aware that the caffeine and theobromine in cocoa products may cause side effects as well as interfere with the actions of certain drugs. Cocoa and chocolate products may also trigger migraines in some people and may trigger allergic contact dermatitis in nickel-sensitive individuals. People with milk allergies should be aware that dark chocolate bars may contain milk (See Concerns and Cautions).
Dark Chocolates and Cocoas - Finding the Best and Avoiding Toxic Cadmium
What It Is:
Cocoa powder (also called cocoa solids) is made from cacao beans after removal of the natural fats (cocoa butter). Cocoa powder is rich in antioxidant compounds known as flavanols that also occur in grapes, apples, and teas. Flavanols can exist as simple compounds (catechins monomers) or linked together (catechins oligomers or polymers) as compounds known as proanthocyanidins or PACs. (Note: Flavanols differ from flavonols, such as quercetin, which contain a ketone group.)
Cocoa powder is used to make cocoa beverages, chocolate, chocolate syrup and chocolate confectionaries. The amount of flavanols in a cocoa-based product depends on multiple factors including plant genetics, where the plant is grown, how the plant is harvested, how the cocoa is processed, and how the product is prepared. For example, dark chocolate and milk chocolate are made with cocoa powder and cocoa butter, however, dark chocolate has a much higher concentration of flavanols because milk chocolate includes milk, and, typically, a larger amount of sugar. [Be aware that the "% cocoa" or "% cacao" in a chocolate reflects the total amount of cocoa powder plus cocoa butter relative to all other ingredients. As sugar is the only other ingredient in dark chocolate, "% cocoa" in dark chocolate tells you the percent that is not sugar. However, as manufacturers typically don't disclose the ratio of cocoa powder to cocoa butter in their chocolates, the "% cocoa" is only a rough indicator of how much cocoa powder is in a product and how flavanol-rich the chocolate may be.][Also be aware that the FDA has found milk in some dark chocolates — see Concerns and Cautions.]