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Dark Chocolate, Cocoa Powder, Nibs, Extracts & Supplements Review -- Sources of Flavanols
Initial Posting: 5/17/14 EXPANDED: 8/1/14, 10/28/15 and 7/16/17 Last Update: 9/28/19 Sections: Jump to a section by clicking on its name.
Summary: What You Need to Know About Cocoa Powders, Dark Chocolate, Extracts, Nibs & 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")
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 4th column in the Results Table below. It will show you the amount of flavanols in a serving of each product.
Which product is best?Be careful! Many popular cocoa powders and some dark chocolates are contaminated with high levels of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal (see What CL Found).
If you want a large amount of flavanols with minimal contaminants, as well as minimal calories, consider an extract like CocoaVia. Among dark chocolates, aside from baking chocolate, Endangered Species had the greatest concentration of flavanols without contamination and was well priced. If you'd prefer a traditional cocoa powder, we suggest you limit intake to just one cup per day due to cadmium and/or lead contamination in every product; two products with the least contamination and high concentrations of flavanols (as well as being reasonable priced) are Aduna and Hershey's. Another option is to take cacao nibs — our choice is Navitas Naturals. For more details about these products. See CL's Top Picks,
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 and lead 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).
Watch LIVE Q&A with CL Founder, Dr. Tod Cooperman
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 (also called catechins), which also occur in grapes, apples, and teas. Flavanols can exist as simple compounds (monomers) or linked together (oligomers) as compounds known as proanthocyanidins or PACs -- although both types are often referred to as flavanols, as is in this Review. (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 % which 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, therefore, how flavanol-rich the chocolate may be.][Also be aware that the FDA has found milk in some dark chocolates — see Concerns and Cautions.]