What to Eat: Are Cocoa and Chocolate a Reliable Source of Flavanols?

Don’t count on your chocolate or cocoa providing significant amounts of flavanols, a family of chemicals that may be good for the circulation.

While the cocoa bean is one of the richest sources of flavanols, the levels in chocolate, cocoa powders, pills, and bars vary dramatically, according to a new analysis of commercial products. Some contain only trivial amounts, while others have high levels of the toxic metal cadmium.


Consumerlab.com, a White Plains, New York company that’s been evaluating the quality of dietary supplements and nutraceuticals for more than 10 years, recently measured flavanol levels in 8 cocoa products, including powders and pills, a liquid extract, and a dark chocolate bar. This is the first time that flavanol levels in commercial products have been made public.

While there is no official U.S. recommended daily amount of flavanols to consume, European regulators have concluded that at least 200 mg a day may help to increase blood circulation.

Some cocoa products don’t contain anywhere near that amount in a serving.

Consumerlab.com found that one cocoa product boasting of being “a highly concentrated extract” actually contained almost no flavanols at all. Cocoa pills from a major mail-order vitamin company had so little that consumers would need to swallow 60 pills a day to get 200 mg.

And two organic cocoa powders that did contain ample amounts of flavanols also had significant amounts of cadmium, which can harm kidneys and bones. The levels exceeded what is permitted in Canada and would require a warning label in California. (The U.S. FDA has not established a limit for cadmium in food or dietary supplements.)

Consumerlab.com’s findings are consistent with a report on cocoa and chocolate in the December 2013 issue of Nutrition Action Heathletter, which pointed out that flavanols are destroyed when cocoa beans are processed into cocoa and chocolate. How much is lost depends on the beans and how they’re processed, but consumers have no way of knowing how much is left.

Since there’s no requirement that products list their flavanol contents and manufacturers don’t seem eager to disclose the levels, consumers are pretty much left in the dark about how much flavanols they’re getting.

One thing that’s clear, though, is milk chocolate bars, chocolate syrup, and chocolate milk are not sensible ways to get flavanols. Milk chocolate, for example, has so little that one would have to eat more than ten ounces and 1,580 calories worth to get 200 mg of flavanols.

The results of Consumerlab.com’s analysis are available to subscribers of the website at consumerlab.com.

Large amounts of flavanols can improve blood flow and there’s promising, though far from definitive, evidence that they can lower blood pressure and improve brain function.

But research shows that the more chocolate people eat, the more weight they gain. If you want cocoa flavanols in your diet, you’re better off getting them from unsweetened cocoa powder or a fortified powder from a major manufacturer that guarantees at least 200 mg in a serving.

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11 Replies to “What to Eat: Are Cocoa and Chocolate a Reliable Source of Flavanols?”

    1. From Nutrition Action Healthletter: No, consumerlab.com did not analyze cocoa nibs. It is currently analyzing additional cocoa and chocolate products.

    1. From Nutrition Action Heathletter: Consumerlab did not test baking chocolate. But the more cacao and the less sugar, fat, milk or other ingredients a product contains, the more flavanols it’s likely to have.

  1. I”m a bit concerned about your reliance on consumerlabs. Are you aware that companies can pay them to have their products tested, and the results suppressed if they’re unfavorable?

    1. From Nutrition Action Heathletter: ConsumerLab.com has been testing dietary supplements in the marketplace for more than a decade and has a sterling reputation for integrity. Companies have no control over the publication of the tests and the results have never been successfully challenged. If a company disputes a finding for one of its products, CL will re-test it only if the company agrees to report the results – good or bad – prominently on the company’s website.

      In addition to this testing, ConsumerLab.com runs a separate Quality Certification Program in which companies pay CL to test their supplements. These results are confidential and belong to the company that paid for them. If a product passes, the company can have this listed on CL’s website, with a note that the test was paid for by the company. If a product fails, CL is not free to publicize the results. We don’t think it’s fair to characterize this as a suppression of unfavorable results or to use this to cast doubt on the integrity of CL’s primary testing program.

  2. In light of new findings on 1 Aug 2014 from ConsumerLab finding even more broad Cadmium contamination, does Nutrition Action plan to do a major article on the problem of Cadmium in cocoa powders such as Hershey’s? This might pressure the government here to regulate, as Canada does, and the EU has said it will, apparently not until 2019, however.

    1. From Nutrition Action Healthletter: We don’t test foods for flavanol content. We rely on information from manufacturers and independent testing. If we hear of an analysis of roasted, brewed cocoa beans, we’ll let you and our readers know.

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