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Health Benefits of Chocolate

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  • Chocolate (Theobroma cacao)
  • Flavonoids
  • Date: November 15, 2005 HC# 050351-292

    Re: Health Benefits of Chocolate

    Lee R, Balick M. Rx: Chocolate. Explore. March 2005;1(2):136-139.

    Flavonoids, potent antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables, are also found in significant amounts in cocoa, chocolate, red wine, and tea. Researchers have found that consumption of foods containing flavonoids can lower high blood pressure, reduce cardiovascular disease, and lessen the risk of strokes. The authors take a look at the health benefits of chocolate (Theobroma cacao).

    The antihypertensive role of chocolate is a relatively recent finding. In the early 1980s, Norman Hollenberg, a Harvard physician, discovered papers of Dr. B.H. Kean, who worked among the Kuna Indians on the San Blas Islands off the southern end of Central America. Dr. Kean had noted remarkably low rates of hypertension among aging Kuna adults. Dr. Hollenberg, who was involved in hypertension research and its genetic aspects, decided to see whether the Kuna Indians were still experiencing low rates of hypertension. Instead of finding a protective blood pressure gene, Dr. Hollenberg found an environmental effect: the Kuna Indians who left the San Blas Islands and resettled in Panama City had rates of hypertension comparable with other Indians and, more importantly, rising rates with aging. Dietary changes appeared to be responsible for the findings. For example, as Dr. Hollenberg noted, the more traditional Kuna diet included very lightly processed flavonoid-rich cocoa, consumed five times a day, whereas those living in Panama City drank several cups of highly processed cocoa.

    In 2003, Naomi Fisher, along with Dr. Hollenberg and others, found that flavanol-rich cocoa induced nitric oxide-dependent vasodilation in healthy individuals.1 Similar results were reported by Mary Engler at the University of California, San Francisco2 and by Dirk Taubert and his colleagues in the Journal of the American Medical Association.3

    Chocolate has also been found to lower the low-density lipoprotein cholesterol while leaving high-density lipoprotein cholesterol unchanged;4 this effect is linked to its high antioxidant content.

    These recent studies, say the authors, are of great interest to those in the functional food industry (functional foods are commercially processed foods designed to have increased health benefits). Some speculate that, as a functional food, chocolate could be a billion-dollar industry.5 The authors point out that the Mars Corporation has a high-flavonol chocolate bar called CocoaVia available on its web site. Each bar contains 100 mg of cocoa flavonoids with fewer than 80 calories. The company is also developing a high-flavonol cocoa beverage. While these functional food products may provide some health benefits, it is important to note that Kuna use lightly processed cocoa which may contain other benefits besides flavonoids.

    Historically, chocolate has been served primarily as a beverage. The Olmecs, one of the first civilizations of the Americas, are credited with the first use of cacao. Its use as a beverage continued with the Mayas. With the arrival of the Spaniards, cane sugar was added to the beverage. The Aztecs often added the ground seeds of the kapok tree.

    Chocolate drink recipes reminiscent of those original Mesoamerican beverages are available today. The beverages at Kakawa Chocolate House (Santa Fe, NM) are "rich, strong, and bittersweet and use high-quality chocolate imbued with rose and almond flavorings and sweetened with agave syrup or honey," according to Mark Sciscenti, the founder, in a conversation with one of the authors. The beverages, as with other chocolate products, offer a sense of immediate alertness.

    Among the components in chocolate that affect the central nervous system is phenylethanolamine, a brain stimulant, which can cause the same effects as amphetamines if taken in large enough doses. Methylxanthines -- better known as caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline -- are also found in chocolate.

    The authors note that some health professionals challenge the benefits of chocolate because of its fat and calorie content. "Despite the copious amounts of flavanoids touted in dark chocolate and even in the new chocolate functional food products, a generous helping of daily fruits and vegetables can never be replaced as a staple of a nutritional prescription. However, in the use of this noble plant, we once again see the wisdom of nature," say the authors.

    -Shari Henson

    1Fisher N, Hughes M, Gerhard-Herman M. Flavanol-rich cocoa induces nitric oxide-dependent vasodilation in healthy humans. Journal of Hypertension.. 2003;21:2281-2286.

    2Engler MB, Engler M, Chen C, et al. Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate improves endothelial function and increases plasma epicatechin concentrations in healthy adults. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2004;23:197-204.

    3Taubert D, Berkels R, Roesen R, et al. Chocolate and blood pressure in the elderly individuals with isolated systolic hypertension. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2003;29:1029-1030.

    4De Graaf J, De Sauvage Nolting PR, Van Dam M, et al. Consumption of tall oil-derived phytosterols in a chocolate matrix significantly decreases plasma total and low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol levels. British Journal of Nutrition. 2002;88:479-488.

    5Gertner J. Eat chocolate, live longer? New York Times Magazine. October 10, 2004.

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