Further work has been published on the potential health benefits of cocoa extract, this time in protecting the brain from Alzheimer’s disease.
A team led by Dr. Giulio Pasinetti of The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, USA, investigated the current state of research on the effects of polyphenols, contained in cocoa extract. Polyphenols are micronutrients that may have a role to play in reducing age-related cognitive dysfunction.
The team reviewed several studies that demonstrate this effect in experiments on animals, and believe it may be due to polyphenols inhibiting the dangerous build-up of toxic proteins such as beta-amyloid and tau proteins.
“Bioactive polyphenols, in particular flavanols, which are highly represented in cocoa extracts, may beneficially influence cognitive deterioration, such as in Alzheimer’s disease, while promoting healthy brain aging,” they write in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
If the benefits of polyphenols for humans are confirmed, this effect could “play a pivotal role in preventing the loss of synapses that are critical for functional connection among neurons,” says the team. This may “provide a viable and important strategy for preserving cognitive function and, thereby, protecting against the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” they add.
The experts state that, despite the promises of cocoa polyphenols for treating or preventing Alzheimer’s disease, “there is a need for multidisciplinary collaborative efforts involving cocoa producers, wholesalers, and the biomedical community if we want to succeed in the development of cocoa extract for health benefits.”
The global supply of cocoa is diminishing, they warn, and cocoa extract processing suffers from a lack of consistency so polyphenol content can vary widely. This should be carefully addressed before recommendations can be made.
They conclude that the current research suggests “there is strong scientific evidence supporting the growing interest in developing cocoa extract, and potentially certain dietary chocolate preparations, as a natural source to maintain and promote brain health, and in particular to prevent age-related neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of age-related dementia affecting an estimated 44 million people worldwide.”
However, experts warn that even dark chocolate may not always contain flavanols. A Lancet editorial states that it’s impossible to tell from the packaging whether dark chocolate contains flavanols or not.
The editorial states, “Dark chocolate can be deceptive. When chocolate manufacturers make confectionary, the natural cocoa solids can be darkened and the flavanols, which are bitter, removed, so even a dark-looking chocolate can have no flavanol.
“Consumers are also kept in the dark about the flavanol content of chocolate because manufacturers rarely label their products with this information.”
Furthermore, the possible health benefits are offset by the fat, sugar, and calories also contained in dark chocolate.
“To gain any health benefit,” the editorial says, “those who eat a moderate amount of flavanol-rich dark chocolate will have to balance the calories by reducing their intake of other foods, a tricky job for even the most ardent calorie counter.”
A calculator may be called for, says the editorial. “Some would say that, in terms of food intake, the best and simplest health message would be to stay away from the chocolate and eat a healthy, balanced diet, low in sugar and salt, and full of fresh fruit and vegetables.”
So specially-prepared cocoa extract is probably the way forward to gain the potential advantages of polyphenols.
Dr. Pasinetti and colleagues point out that recent clinical studies seem to confirm the effectiveness of certain cocoa extracts against cognitive aging.
But, despite the promises of cocoa polyphenols for treating or preventing Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Pasinetti believes there is a need for “multidisciplinary collaborative efforts involving cocoa producers, wholesalers, and the biomedical community, if we want to succeed in the development of cocoa extract for health benefits.”
“For example,” he continues, “there are still major issues relating to the diminishing global supply of cocoa and the lack of consistency and reproducibility of cocoa extract processing, which should be carefully addressed. Changes in growth, climate/conditions, and cocoa plant diseases are decreasing the supply of cocoa.”
In order to address this, experts are investigating new breeds of cocoa that are engineered to be fruitful, more resistant to disease, and more flavorful. Research is also underway to discover exactly how cocoa processing influences the biological effect of cocoa extracts, as certain procedures can reduce its polyphenol content.
“Two of the most common processing techniques for the chocolate we consume have been reported to result in the loss of as much as 90% of the polyphenols in cocoa,” warns Dr. Pasinetti.
He concludes that, “Interdisciplinary research will provide an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen our understanding of the beneficial roles of cocoa polyphenols and improve cocoa development and processing in order to promote healthy brain aging and possibly prevent Alzheimer’s disease.”
Dubner, L. et al. Recommendations for Development of New Standardized Forms of Cocoa Breeds and Cocoa Extract Processing for the Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease: Role of Cocoa in Promotion of Cognitive Resilience and Healthy Brain Aging. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 27 October 2015, doi: I0.3233/JAD-150536
Editorial: The devil in the dark chocolate. The Lancet, Vol. 370, December 22/29, 2007, p. 2070.
Chocolate photo available from Shutterstock