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Can We Reduce Wrinkles With Cocoa?

The good news keeps on coming. After a large study found that coffee can save your life (well, not really, but coffee drinkers had lower mortality rates), a new study suggests cocoa can make your skin supple and radiant during that long, happy life, brought to you by 3-5 coffee cups a day.

Cocoa is very rich in antioxidants -- flavonoids and flavonols in particular. Our skin suffers ultraviolet damage from exposure to the elements, leading to photo aging, and antioxidants can potentially mitigate those effects.

This is what researchers were testing in a neat new study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in which 64 women consumed chocolate drinks for 24 weeks. Half of them had drinks with 4 grams of real cocoa powder, a powder produced so that it preserves the naturally occurring flavonols (each drink had 320 mg cocoa flavonols). The other half drank a nutrient and taste-matched cocoa-flavored beverage with no flavonols. The participants and the researches were unaware of which group they were in (a double blind, randomized placebo controlled study, which is the gold standard of studies).

After 24 weeks, the women treated with cocoa showed improvement of wrinkles in the crow-feet area, and their skin was more elastic -- these results were objectively and elaborately measured and are not personal impressions. These improvements didn't appear immediately, but rather 12 weeks into the experiment.

A good-for-you pleasure?

Over the years, cocoa, used in traditional folk medicine, has demonstrated quite a few health benefits, and has been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and aid in insulin resistance.

And a series of recent studies have hinted that not only will you look young, cocoa can also help keep your mind supple. A study published in Nature Neuroscience showed that healthy 50- to 69-year-olds who drank a mixture rich in cocoa's flavonols for three months improved their cognitive function. In another new study researchers gave 90 elderly people who were cognitively intact one of 3 cocoa drinks: high, medium or low in flavonol. The groups that drank the intermediate and high flavonol drinks showed improved cognitive performance and improvement in some mental tasks. A similar study with older people that already suffered mild cognitive impairment showed that high cocoa flavonol drinks improved verbal fluency and speed of mental processing.

Before you start a chocolate binge

As a chocolate lover I really enjoy these studies, but before we see this as permission to eat chocolate in all its delicious incarnations let's be honest: Most of the chocolate in the market is mostly sugar. Cocoa flavonol content isn't listed in the nutrition label, and many chocolate foods have very little of it. So if you love chocolate, here's another excuse to enjoy it; if you're not into it, there isn't compelling evidence to start a cocoa habit at this point, even if your laugh lines are digging into permanency.

Looking for flavonoid rich cocoa foods? Here are a few tips:

Cocoa powder: This is pure cocoa solids: fermented, dried cacao beans, with the cocoa butter separated out, and the remaining solids ground into a fine powder. Processed right, it is one of the most antioxidant rich foods in the world. Natural cocoa powder has more antioxidants than the Dutch-processed or alkalized version.

Cacao nibs: These are pieces crumpled from whole cacao beans, with pure chocolaty flavor, but no sweetness at all. They can be added to both sweet and savory dishes and are super rich in antioxidants.

Dark chocolate: Cocoa solids in dark chocolate vary, and are often listed on the pack, the higher the percentage the more flavonols it packs.

Milk chocolate: By definition the milk varieties will have less cocoa solids than the dark versions, but some fine milks have as much as 35-45 percent cocoa solids, while others have as little as 10 percent, making them a good source of -- let's admit it -- sugar.