It's commonly known that chocolate milk’s combination of antioxidants, protein and carbohydrate makes for a great recovery drink. But chocolate - or rather cocoa ﬂavanols, a speciﬁc group of ﬂavonoids - consumed pre-exercise can improve performance, too, according to nutritionist Christine Bailey.
Flavonoids are a naturally occurring chemical compound found in plants, where they help with processes such as wound repair and disease protection. Scientists and researchers have established a link between eating foods rich in flavanoids, and decreased risk of illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and stroke. Happily, cocoa is a particularly rich source of flavanoids.
According to 2012 research from Australia, consumption of a cocoa ﬂavonol-rich drink may help to lower blood pressure, boost blood ﬂow to the muscles and lessen the demands placed on the heart during exercise.
In the study carried out at the University of South Australia and published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers recruited 21 overweight, middle-aged people and split them into two groups. The ﬁrst consumed a cocoa ﬂavanol-rich beverage containing 701mg ﬂavanols, while the second drank a low-cocoa ﬂavanol beverage.
Two hours later, the participants cycled for 10 minutes at 75 percent of their maximum heart rate. Results showed that while there were no differences in blood pressure before exercise, there was a signiﬁcant difference afterwards. In fact, increases in diastolic blood pressure were 68 percent lower in the high-ﬂavanol group, while mean blood pressure was 14 percent lower.
The researchers said that the ﬁndings suggest the consumption of cocoa ﬂavanol-rich drinks could allow for safer and more efﬁcient exercise performance, placing less stress on the cardiovascular system.
Analysis of 10 studies, published in the American Journal of Hypertension, conﬁrmed the blood pressure-reducing properties of cocoa – and you don’t need to eat loads either. Eating less than half an ounce of dark chocolate a day – only about 30 calories – was associated with a lowering of blood pressure without weight gain or other adverse effects, according to a study undertaken in 2007 and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The research hasn't stopped there, and further studies have shown benefits to memory and concentration from eating flavanol-rich chocolate (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2015)
Chocolate's other benefits
It's not all about flavanols and blood pressure. Cocoa contains a range of nutrients that may beneﬁt your performance, including B vitamins, calcium and magnesium, amino acids and a number of other antioxidants.
Cocoa also contains caffeine, which is known to improve cycling performance – in part due to a stimulation of fatty acid mobilisation and sparing the body’s limited carbohydrate stores.
Research has shown that caffeine lowers the perception of effort and fatigue too, both for endurance efforts and sprints. Typically, a hot chocolate drink contains around 10mg caffeine, while a milk chocolate bar (50g) holds about 40mg. While this is nowhere near as much as the 100mg in your morning espresso, cocoa also contains appreciable amounts of the related compound theobromine.
Although this is less pharmacologically active, the high content gives it an equivalent effect to that of caffeine. Theobromine is also a vasodilator, which means it widens the blood vessels increasing blood flow – another plus on the side of cocoa.
Choose the right chocolate
For the most noticeable beneﬁts, choose chocolate with high levels of cocoa – look for dark chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cocoa solids. Not all chocolate is created equal, and will usually contain a mixture of cocoa solids, cocoa butter and/or milk solids, flavourings and sugar. Try to avoid chocolate with a high sugar content if possible.
If you do want creamier chocolate, make sure you look for chocolate that has more (or only) cocoa butter rather than milk solids. Cocoa butter is often swapped out for milk solids, which are cheaper and more calorific.
Another clue as to the quality of the chocolate is the flavouring. Look out for vanilla, which is the genuine article, rather than artificial and cheaper vanillin, which again is used in lower-grade chocolate products.
The new kid on the block, though, is raw chocolate. This is the bean, or nib, of the cocoa pod in its natural state – not cooked, over-processed or mixed with cheap ﬁller ingredients.
Also known as cacao, it’s available in the form of bars, nibs, powder, raw cookies and brownies. Often fused with coconut butter or agave syrup with dried fruit and nuts, it creates an amazingly healthy bar that’s perfect for before and after exercise. Importantly, as it isn’t heated above 42°C, it tends to be richer in health-promoting antioxidants, too.
5 ways cocoa benefits you
If you eat the right kind of cocoa in carefully measured quantities there are a wealth of health and recovery benefits to its ingestion. So what are the ways in that gnawing on the tasty brown stuff can do your body some real good?
1. Enhanced energy production
Cocoa is rich in B vitamins, which are needed for a variety of metabolic processes, including energy production.
2. Bone and joint health
It’s also a great source of the minerals copper, calcium, magnesium and zinc, all of which play a role in supporting bone health, cartilage and collagen production.
3. Muscle recovery and soreness
In addition to the ﬂavonoids, cocoa contains the potent antioxidant vitamins C and E to combat free radical damage, which can contribute to both inﬂammation and muscle soreness.
4. Immune support
During endurance exercise or heavy ongoing training, your immune system can be suppressed, making you more vulnerable to infections. Flavonoids, vitamins C, E and zinc help support healthy immune function.
5. Muscle growth and repair
Cocoa contains several amino acids (including leucine), which are known to be essential for the physical demands of athletic activities. Amino acids are necessary for muscle growth and repair.
The botanical name for the chocolate plant is theobroma cacao, which means food of the gods. Combine the properties mentioned above with its delicious flavour, and we're inclined to agree!