In recent years, the consumption of chocolate and, in particular, dark chocolate has been "rehabilitated" due to its high content of cocoa antioxidant polyphenols. Although it is recognized that regular exercise improves energy metabolism and muscle performance, excessive or unaccustomed exercise may induce cell damage and impair muscle function by triggering oxidative stress and tissue inflammation. The aim of this review was to revise the available data from literature on the effects of cocoa polyphenols on exercise-associated tissue damage and impairment of exercise performance. To this aim, PubMed and Web of Science databases were searched with the following keywords: "intervention studies", "cocoa polyphenols", "exercise training", "inflammation", "oxidative stress", and "exercise performance". We selected thirteen randomized clinical trials on cocoa ingestion that involved a total of 200 well-trained athletes. The retrieved data indicate that acute, sub-chronic, and chronic cocoa polyphenol intake may reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress but not inflammation, while mixed results are observed in terms of exercise performance and recovery. The interpretation of available results on the anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory activities of cocoa polyphenols remains questionable, likely due to the variety of physiological networks involved. Further experimental studies are mandatory to clarify the role of cocoa polyphenol supplementation in exercise-mediated inflammation.
Keywords: athlete; chocolate; cocoa; exercise performance; inflammation; oxidative stress; performance; physical exercise; polyphenol; skeletal muscle.