Fruits and vegetables have historically been considered rich sources of essential dietary micronutrients, soluble fiber, and antioxidants. More recently they are have been recognized as important sources for a wide array of phytochemicals that individually, or in combination, may benefit vascular health. Flavonoids are the largest, and most widely distributed class of phytochemicals, and can be further subdivided into several different sub-classes. Several epidemiology studies have observed an inverse association between flavonoid intake and risk of cardiovascular mortality. One sub-class of flavonoids, the flavanols, is found in foods such as grapes, red wine, tea, cocoa and chocolate; however, it is important to note that common food processing practices can significantly reduce the levels of these compounds found in finished food products. Recent studies have examined the potential of flavanol-rich cocoa and chocolates to influence vascular health. In this review, we discuss evidence for the hypothesis that the consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa can reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease through a multiplicity of mechanisms, including changes in oxidant defense mechanisms, vascular reactivity, cytokine production, and platelet function.
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