Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?
By Dr. Dana Myatt
“A new British survey has revealed that 9 out of 10 people like chocolate. The 10th lies” —Robert Paul
Chocolate has been making headlines for it’s heart-healthy benefits, and chocolate-lovers everywhere are rejoicing that their favorite treat may actually be healthy. Gosh — how great would it be if your doctor “prescribed” a daily chocolate bar?
Before you start snacking on that daily treat, here is some “medical insider” information you should know.
Who Thought to Research Chocolate for Health Benefits?
A tribe of indigenous people in Panama — the Kuna tribe — have been known to scientists since the 1940′s for their absence of high blood pressure and heart disease. When tribe members move to the city, blood pressure and heart disease rates rise.(1)
OK, so city life is probably more stressful than living naturally in the bush. But another significant difference in bush-living Kuna is their intake of chocolate, or more specifically, flavonol-rich cocoa. The indigenous Kuna consume 10 times more cocoa flavonols in the form of 5 or more cups per day of a cocoa beverage. They also use cocoa in many recipes. Their city-dwelling counterparts do not. (NOTE: Indigenous Kuna also consume 4 times more fish).(2,3)
The “magic” in the Kuna beverage is a minimally processed cocoa that contains high levels of polyphenols which are a type of flavonol that triggers nitric oxide production.
Nitric oxide (NO) is a potent vasodilator that opens blood vessels, lowers blood pressure and increases blood flow. Many natural physicians use L-arginine, which converts to NO. Chocolate flavonols increase the conversion of L-arginine to nitric oxide. [Note: Viagra (tm) works by increasing NO, but by a different mechanism.] (4,5)
Several new studies suggest that chocolate lowers blood pressure.
Earlier this year, a study published in The Journal of American Hypertension reported on an experiment with 102 hypertensive patients randomized to consume either 6 or 25 grams per day of flavonol-rich dark chocolate for 3 months. [Dr. Myatt’s side note: this is one of the few medical studies I’d probably agree to participate in! ]
Blood pressure in both groups dropped, independent of dose. In other words, it doesn’t take much chocolate to achieve health benefits. (Sorry to those who were thinking this was going to be a “green light” to eat an entire chocolate bar every day).(6)
Another meta-analysis analyzed data from 10 separate chocolate studies and found that chocolate intake decreased systolic B.P. an average of 4.5mm Hg and diastolic BP an average of 2.5mm Hg.(7) This is a very modest reduction of blood pressure.
Other Benefits of Chocolate
Besides modest blood pressure-lowering effects, chocolate flavonols have also been shown in various studies to decrease vascular inflammation (a separate cause of heart disease) and improve blood lipids by lowering LDL and raising HDL.(4,8)
How Much Chocolate Should You Eat for Health Benefits?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but here goes.
The studies mentioned above all used special chocolates processed with low heat and not “Dutched” (alkalinized). These are not the types of chocolate you can purchase in stores. The “magic” in chocolate, the flavonols, are destroyed by heat processing and alkali (“Dutched” cocoa).Even the “organic” and “extra-dark” chocolates with 70% cocoa don’t necessarily get the job done. Flavonols are damaged by heat and alkalinization. Period. Bummer.
Flavonols in chocolate — the healthy stuff — is bitter. This is why chocolate is “dutched” (alkalinized) and heat-treated. It makes the “bitter” more palatable. But in processing chocolate to make it tasty, the health properties are damaged.(9,10)
Fonus Balonus Chocolate Studies
It should also be noted that many of the “chocolate is good for you” studies have been funded by the chocolate industry.(11-13) However, when the benefits are touted to the public, no mention is made of the “must be low heat processed in order to work.” The natural foods industry has apparently caught on to Big Pharma’s “massage the statistics and obfuscate the facts” tricks. Hey — whatever it takes to sell more stuff.
Don’t Give Up on Chocolate Just Yet
The right dark chocolate, minimally heat processed and not “dutched,” can contain enough flavlonols to have potential health benefit.(14) Cocoa “nibs” — roasted cocoa beans separated from their husks and broken into small bits — also have some of the very highest flavonol content.(15)
If you are serious about eating a SMALL piece of chocolate each day for both health benefit and enjoyment, be sure to get dark chocolate with high flavonol content. Vital Choice Seafood features chocolate bars with some of the highest flavonol content available. Vital Choice Organic Extra Dark Chocolate features healthy fats, minerals, and antioxidants. Savored sparingly, it makes a delicious, satisfying treat that supports your health and helps sustain cacao growers’ land, communities, and culture.
Chocolate Antioxidant Chart
1.) K Hollenberg N. Vascular action of cocoa flavanols in humans: the roots of the story. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol. 2006;47 Suppl 2:S99-102; discussion S119-21.
2.) Hollenberg NK, Fisher ND, McCullough ML. Flavanols, the Kuna, cocoa consumption, and nitric oxide. J Am Soc Hypertens. 2009 Mar-Apr;3(2):105-12. Epub 2009 Feb 20.
3.) McCullough ML, Chevaux K, Jackson L, Preston M, Martinez G, Schmitz HH, Coletti C, Campos H, Hollenberg NK. Hypertension, the Kuna, and the epidemiology of flavanols. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol. 2006;47 Suppl 2:S103-9; discussion 119-21.
4.) Fisher ND, Hollenberg NK. Aging and vascular responses to flavanol-rich cocoa. J Hypertens. 2006 Aug;24(8):1575-80.
5.) Taubert D, Roesen R, Lehmann C, Jung N, Schömig E. Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2007 Jul 4;298(1):49-60.
6.) Desch S, Kobler D, Schmidt J, Sonnabend M, Adams V, Sareban M, Eitel I, Blüher M, Schuler G, Thiele H. Low vs. higher-dose dark chocolate and blood pressure in cardiovascular high-risk patients. Am J Hypertens. 2010 Jun;23(6):694-700. Epub 2010 Mar 4.
7.) Desch S, Schmidt J, Kobler D, Sonnabend M, Eitel I, Sareban M, Rahimi K, Schuler G, Thiele H. Effect of cocoa products on blood pressure: systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Hypertens. 2010 Jan;23(1):97-103. Epub 2009 Nov 12.
8.) Engler MB, Engler MM, Chen CY, Malloy MJ, Browne A, Chiu EY, Kwak HK, Milbury P, Paul SM, Blumberg J, Mietus-Snyder ML. Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate improves endothelial function and increases plasma epicatechin concentrations in healthy adults. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Jun;23(3):197-204.
9.) McShea A, Ramiro-Puig E, Munro SB, Casadesus G, Castell M, Smith MA. Clinical benefit and preservation of flavonols in dark chocolate manufacturing. Nutr Rev. 2008 Nov;66(11):630-41.
10.) Andres-Lacueva C, Monagas M, Khan N, Izquierdo-Pulido M, Urpi-Sarda M, Permanyer J, Lamuela-Raventós RM. Flavanol and flavonol contents of cocoa powder products: influence of the manufacturing process. J Agric Food Chem. 2008 May 14;56(9):3111-7. Epub 2008 Apr 16.
11.) Hurst WJ, Payne MJ, Miller KB, Stuart DA. Stability of cocoa antioxidants and flavan-3-ols over time. J Agric Food Chem. 2009 Oct 28;57(20):9547-50.
12.) Miller KB, Hurst WJ, Flannigan N, Ou B, Lee CY, Smith N, Stuart DA.Survey of commercially available chocolate- and cocoa-containing products in the United States. 2. Comparison of flavan-3-ol content with nonfat cocoa solids, total polyphenols, and percent cacao.J Agric Food Chem. 2009 Oct 14;57(19):9169-80.
13.) Stahl L, Miller KB, Apgar J, Sweigart DS, Stuart DA, McHale N, Ou B, Kondo M, Hurst WJ. Preservation of cocoa antioxidant activity, total polyphenols, flavan-3-ols, and procyanidin content in foods prepared with cocoa powder. J Food Sci. 2009 Aug;74(6):C456-61.
14.) Djoussé L, Hopkins PN, North KE, Pankow JS, Arnett DK, Ellison RC. Chocolate consumption is inversely associated with prevalent coronary heart disease: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Family Heart Study. Clin Nutr. 2010 Sep 19. [Epub ahead of print]
15.) Ortega N, Romero MP, Macià A, Reguant J, Anglès N, Morelló JR, Motilva MJ. Obtention and characterization of phenolic extracts from different cocoa sources. J Agric Food Chem. 2008 Oct 22;56(20):9621-7. Epub 2008 Sep 27.
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