For years, headlines have been championing the many health benefits of chocolate, including its ability to boost cardiovascular health, improve cognitive function, and ward off major health issues including diabetes and stroke. While many of these benefits are most strongly linked to dark chocolate, even milk chocolate proffers some positive health effects.
Scientists attribute much of these perks to a variety of compounds found in cocoa, including antioxidants, polyphenols, and flavonoids. As a result, much of the coverage talks up these chocolate compounds—but often without defining what they are in the first place.
So let’s set the record straight. Once and for all, here’s what the media is talking about when they laud cocoa’s health-boosting compounds.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are naturally occurring compounds found in a variety of plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, tea, wine, and (of course) chocolate. This umbrella term includes a variety of specific antioxidant compounds with which you may be familiar, such as resveratrol in wine, lycopene in tomatoes, and cocoa flavanols (which we’ll define below).
Antioxidants play a powerful role in maintaining overall health because they help fight free radicals in the body. Free radicals are a type of molecule that can naturally develop inside the body or enter the body as a result of exposure to air pollution, alcohol, and cigarette smoke, among other sources. If left unchecked, these free radicals can cause cell damage throughout the entire body and contribute to a variety of chronic diseases. By fighting them off, antioxidants help protect the cells from damage, thereby increasing immunity and providing an anti-aging effect. Cocoa is pretty miraculous in that it contains more antioxidants (especially those in the polyphenol category) than almost any other food item, including green and black teas.
What are polyphenols?
Polyphenols are a class of phytochemicals, or naturally occurring compounds found in a variety of plants. There are thousands of distinct polyphenols, which are categorized into four main groups: Stilbenes, Lignans, Phenolic Acids, and Flavonoids, the last of which we’ll define below. What all of these polyphenols share in common is that they contain antioxidant capabilities.
Thanks especially to these antioxidant functions, polyphenols have been linked to a number of health benefits including reduced inflammation, better cardiovascular health, improved immunity, healthier skin, and anti-aging effects. The polyphenols found in cocoa have proven especially adept at reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, managing metabolic disorders, preventing cancer, and reducing inflammation throughout the body.
What are flavanoids?
According to one study, “Flavonoids belong to a group of natural substances with phenolic structures built around a core flavone structure and are found in plants and food products such as wine.” So hopefully that clears things up.
Just kidding! Scientific jargon aside, flavonoids are just a certain type of naturally occurring polyphenols that have antioxidant properties. Flavanoids represent a category of polyphenolic compounds that includes flavanols, which occur in cocoa in particularly high quantities.
Among other benefits, these cocoa flavanoids have been shown to improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of diabetes, protect nerves from damage, boost the immune system, promote cognitive health, improve mood, and reduce inflammation throughout the body.
So there you have it: You’re now equipped to be a more discerning consumer of chocolate news. And if the question “What is an antioxidant?” ever pops up during trivia night, you’re going to nail it.