Chocolate is the gift of love and health

By Jasminee Sahoye

HealthColumnA popular confectionery associated with Valentine’s Day, dark chocolate has some good health benefits, according to scientists.

They have discovered that dark chocolate helps restore flexibility to arteries while also preventing white blood cells from sticking to the walls of blood vessels. Both arterial stiffness and white blood cell adhesion are known factors that play a significant role in atherosclerosis. They also found that increasing the flavanol (antioxidents) content of dark chocolate did not change this effect. This discovery was published in The FASEB Journal.

Dark chocolate is at least 35% cocoa liquor and milk chocolate is 10%. White chocolate has cocoa butter but no chocolate liquor. Chocolate contains protein, magnesium and flavanols. Dark chocolate has caffeine; white chocolate does not. Dairy-based chocolate provides calcium.

Flavonols found in chocolate may boost the body’s immune system. There is still a lot more study needed but exciting emerging research shows chocolate may be good for both cardiovascular health and even memory. The sweetness in chocolate certainly makes it taste good but chocolate should always be consumed in moderation due to sugar and fat content.

“We provide a more complete picture of the impact of chocolate consumption in vascular health and show that increasing flavanol content has no added beneficial effect on vascular health,” said Diederik Esser, Ph.D., a researcher involved in the work from the Top Institute Food and Nutrition and Wageningen University, Division of Human Nutrition in Wageningen, The Netherlands.

“However, this increased flavanol content clearly affected taste and thereby the motivation to eat these chocolates. So the dark side of chocolate is a healthy one.”

To make this discovery, Esser and colleagues analyzed 44 middle-aged overweight men over two periods of four weeks as they consumed 70 grams of chocolate per day. Study participants received either specially produced dark chocolate with high flavanol content or chocolate that was regularly produced. Both chocolates had a similar cocoa mass content.

Before and after both intervention periods, researchers performed a variety of measurements that are important indicators of vascular health. During the study, participants were advised to refrain from certain energy-dense food products to prevent weight gain. Scientists also evaluated the sensory properties of the high flavanol chocolate and the regular chocolate and collected the motivation scores of the participants to eat these chocolates during the intervention.

There’s more evidence that flavanol-rich chocolate or other cocoa products may contribute to better health, with the latest research from Australia suggesting the confection slightly reduced blood pressure in people with hypertension as well as those with normal blood pressure.

The Australian researchers analyzed 20 studies over the past decade involving 856 mainly healthy adults and found “a statistically significant blood pressure reducing effect of flavanol-rich cocoa products compared with control in short-term trials of two to 18 weeks duration.”

“Although we don’t yet have evidence for any sustained decrease in blood pressure, the small reduction we saw over the short term might complement other treatment options and might contribute to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Karin Ried, lead researcher of the study from the National Institute of Integrative Medicine in Melbourne.

High blood pressure (normal is between 120/80 mm Hg and 129/84 mm Hg) is a prime risk factor for cardiovascular disease, contributing to about half of cardiovascular events worldwide and 37% of cardiovascular-related deaths in the Western world. Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation says high blood pressure is the No. 1 risk factor for stroke.

The researchers found  those who ate flavanol-rich cocoa products daily for a few weeks experienced a blood pressure drop of about two or three points – much less than the effects of blood pressure-lowering medication but on par with the effects of changing one’s diet or taking part in regular exercise.