Researchers have struggled for decades to understand whether cocoa, an ancient fermented product that the Aztecs made from the beans of cacao trees, is beneficial for health. Cocoa is known to contain a large concentration of flavanols, which have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that protect our cells from damage. As a result, cocoa consumption could potentially help us age better and reduce the risk for developing cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other illnesses.
The COSMOS Trial (COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study), led by experts at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, gathered data from 21,444 men and women in order to investigate the health impacts of a daily supplement of cocoa flavanols and a multivitamin supplement.
In the context of this large project, Dr. Yanbin Dong – a geneticist and cardiologist at the Georgia Prevention Institute from the Medical College of Georgia – was recently awarded a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to perform a detailed analysis of the effect of cocoa consumption on inflammatory factors and genetic changes associated with aging.
Dr. Dong is expected to conduct sophisticated genetic analyses looking for the impact of cocoa on age-related genetic changes by using “epigenetic clocks,” which are biochemical tests that measure biological age based on the amount of DNA-methylation.
Preliminary results of the COSMOS Trial show that cocoa flavanols have potential benefits on platelet activation, LDL oxidation, lipid profiles, endothelium-dependent vasodilation, blood pressure, inflammation, and insulin resistance, which are all crucial for cardiovascular health.
Dr. Dong’s hypothesis is that flavanol consumption can also reduce epigenetic aging and “inflammaging” (a chronic, low-grade type of inflammation that increases with aging) and, thus, that cocoa consumption can help people live longer, healthier lives.
The researchers emphasized that flavanols are often destroyed in normal cocoa and chocolate processing, making these unreliable sources of flavanol compounds. According to Dr. Dong, a better source of cocoa flavanols is dark chocolate, which also contains iron, copper and other healthy ingredients that help boost immunity and lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and general cognitive decline.