Chocolate that keeps you young. As health headlines go, this one’s up there with margaritas that boost your microbiome and pasta that makes your hair grow. But while we wait patiently for the latter, researchers are working on the former. I’m talking about cocoa—and its copious quantities of flavanols, the natural compounds that are causing a buzz among scientists searching for the elixir of youth.
Quick recap if you’re drawing a blank: the flavanols in cocoa are one of six types of flavonoids that can be found in certain fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods. In fact, some of the best sources also happen to be the most delicious—berries, red wine, tea, and cocoa are all brimming with the stuff. While flavonoids are best known for their antioxidant properties, research shows they have plenty of other health benefits, too. First up, they’ve been shown to reduce inflammation, a condition linked with several life-limiting diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer, as well as several autoimmune diseases and oxidative stress—the imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in your body.
Basically, flavonoids can quite literally keep you young at heart. But inflammation is also associated with several age-related mental conditions, such as cognitive decline and impaired memory.
Earlier this year, research published in the journal BMC Medicine found a link between flavonoid intake and the prevention of dementia. This happens thanks to flavonoids’ ability to stimulate the production of nitric oxide, which helps dilate blood vessels and increase blood flow. The more blood flowing oxygen to your brain, the better it will function—and the better your memory will work, too. That’s before you consider research demonstrating flavanols’ aesthetic achievements. One study published in the Journal Of Nutrition found that cocoa flavanols specifically improved skin elasticity and the appearance of facial wrinkles, while Canadian researchers found they played a role in preventing skin ageing from UV light exposure.
All of which makes a compelling case for finding ways to add more flavanols to your diet. But while doing so is likely to involve a sweet treat–dark chocolate and cocoa are particularly rich in a flavanol called epicatechin, which has been shown to reduce cardiovascular-disease risk and improve cognitive function—not all cocoa is created equal. And the health benefits you reap from it will depend on how it’s been processed and prepared. Instant (read: processed) cocoa powder is unlikely to provide the cocoa flavanols you’re seeking, while much of the chocolate market is made up of ultra-processed products that are high in fat and sugar. As such, aim to eat a varied, balanced diet that incorporates a variety of flavanol-rich foods, with the occasional square of dark chocolate—anything from 50% to 100% cocoa—thrown in for good measure. Now, about those margaritas…
This piece originally appeared in the September 2023 print issue of Women’s Health UK.