The health benefits of chocolate

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Mars has recently announced that it is looking to branch out beyond the manufacture of foods and into the area of pharmaceuticals. The company, famed for its chocolate confectionery, is planning to exploit the health benefits that have been attributed to cocoa-components known as flavonols. These compounds have been found to have a number of biochemical effects which would be expected to help in the prevention and treatment of conditions such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. For reasons of patentability and commercial viability, Mars will need to take some years researching and developing chemically altered versions of flavonols found naturally in chocolate.

Rather than wait for the arrival of these synthetic derivatives, I thought I’d take a look at the benefits that eating flavonol-rich chocolate may offer us right now. Flavonols found in cocoa have, for instance, what is known as ‘antioxidant’ activity, which means they have the capacity to combat disease-promoting agents called ‘free radicals’ in the body. A food’s capacity to neutralise free radicals may be expressed as what is known as its ‘oxygen radical absorbance capacity’ (ORAC). It turns out that, weight for weight, dark chocolate has an ORAC 10 times that of spinach, and about 15 times that of either broccoli or orange. The potent antioxidant action of the flavonols, and perhaps other substances in cocoa, would be expected to translate into considerable potential in terms of disease protection.

Such laboratory-based research is interesting, but is perhaps not as relevant or useful as work which has focused on the effects that flavonol-rich chocolate has within the human body. One study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that consuming dark chocolate each day for just two weeks helped to reduce the blood pressure of individuals suffering from high blood pressure (a risk factor for heart disease and stroke). In another study, daily dark chocolate consumption, again for two weeks, was found to lower not just blood pressure, but also blood levels of cholesterol.

Earlier this year, research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition confirmed the ability of dark chocolate consumption to reduce blood pressure. This study also found other benefits for the body, namely an improvement in the ability of the blood-sugar lowering hormone insulin to do its job. This enhancement of what is known as ‘insulin sensitivity’ would be expected to help in the prevention and treatment of diabetes. It is believed that the improvements in blood pressure and insulin sensitivity that come from chocolate eating may be related to cocoa’s ability to boost the effectiveness of the substance nitric oxide in the body.

Those seeking to getting maximum benefit from chocolate should opt for plain chocolate which will be relatively rich in flavonol-rich cocoa and will also contain less sugar than milk varieties. While the daily amount of chocolate used in the research on dark chocolate has been considerable (typically 100g), these studies have been quite short in duration (around two weeks). It might be that regular, long-term consumption of smaller amounts of dark chocolate might bring a box-full of health benefits for the body.

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