IS CHOCO­LATE GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH?

Is Eat­ing Choco­late Good for Your Health?

In Flight Magazine - - IN THIS ISSUE -

THE AZTEC EM­PEROR MONTEZUMA II SAID THAT A SOL­DIER COULD MARCH FOR A WHOLE DAY ON A SIN­GLE CUP OF COCOA. BUT THIS WAS NOT THE HOT CHOCO­LATE WE WOULD BE FA­MIL­IAR WITH TO­DAY. IT WAS GRITTY, BIT­TER, AND OF­TEN HAD A FATTY SCUM ON TOP. AND IF THAT DOESN’T SOUND UN­PLEAS­ANT ENOUGH, IT WAS OC­CA­SION­ALLY LACED WITH CHILLI OR EVEN HU­MAN BLOOD.

Mod­ern sweet choco­late – with its added milk pow­der and sugar – is a prod­uct of the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion. Un­til fairly re­cently, choco­late wasn’t even con­sid­ered to be a po­ten­tial health food. It was seen more as a guilty plea­sure.

But over the past 30 years, re­search has started to shift our view of choco­late and cocoa, the base in­gre­di­ent of choco­late. (Some­times cocoa is also called ca­cao, gen­er­ally when it is un­pro­cessed or raw. Cur­rently, how­ever, there is no for­mally recog­nised dif­fer­ence be­tween cocoa and ca­cao.)

Ar­guably, the tide of opinion be­gan to change in 1997 fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of a study on the Kuna peo­ple by re­searchers at Har­vard Univer­sity. The re­searchers re­ported that the Kuna, who live on is­lands off the coast of Panama, have very low blood pres­sure, live longer, and have lower rates of heart at­tack, stroke, type 2 di­a­betes and can­cer than their peers on main­land Panama. The thing that dif­fer­en­ti­ates the is­land­dwelling Kuna from those who live on the main­land is their high con­sump­tion of cocoa. On av­er­age, they drink more than five cups of the stuff a day.

Since the pub­li­ca­tion of this study, many other lab­o­ra­tory and clin­i­cal stud­ies seem to have con­firmed the ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects of choco­late and cocoa on mark­ers of heart health, in­clud­ing the

health of blood ves­sels, HDL (“good”) choles­terol lev­els and blood pres­sure.

HEALTH-BOOST­ING BEANS?

So what is it in cocoa that con­fers these health ben­e­fits? The an­swer is likely to be fla­vanols, par­tic­u­larly a com­pound called epi­cat­e­chin. In lab­o­ra­tory stud­ies, epi­cat­e­chin has been shown to be a pow­er­ful an­tiox­i­dant. How­ever, the com­pound doesn’t ap­pear to be­have as an­tic­i­pated in hu­mans, as it is not pos­si­ble to ab­sorb the epi­cat­e­chins in high enough con­cen­tra­tions for them to be ef­fec­tive purely as an an­tiox­i­dant.

In­stead, they ap­pear to act through a num­ber of path­ways in our bod­ies, in­clud­ing help­ing blood ves­sels to re­lax more read­ily – which can lower blood pres­sure, fa­cil­i­tate the man­u­fac­ture of HDL choles­terol, and sup­port the ac­tion of in­sulin. This ap­pears to oc­cur by epi­cat­e­chin sup­port­ing the con­trol­ling path­ways be­hind these bi­o­log­i­cal ef­fects.

A key chal­lenge in choco­late be­ing a health food is its en­ergy, fat and sugar con­tent, which are not in line with gov­ern­ment di­etary rec­om­men­da­tions. A fur­ther prob­lem is that most of the choco­late avail­able con­tains amounts of fla­vanols, in­clud­ing epi­cat­e­chin, too low to have any real ef­fect on our health.

So, how can we ex­plain the re­sults seen in many of the stud­ies? Well, in our re­cent re­view it was noted that many re­search tri­als used spe­cially made choco­lates which are not avail­able in shops, and the ob­served ef­fects in the Kuna could be the re­sult of the large amounts of cocoa they con­sume.

THE RAW COCOA TREND

If cocoa and choco­late don’t con­tain enough epi­cat­e­chin to pro­vide heart-health ben­e­fits, what about go­ing to the source: raw cocoa?

There is a trend for con­sum­ing cold-pressed cocoa beans – the fruit of the Theo­broma ca­cao tree – and claims are made about raw cocoa be­ing more po­tent in its abil­ity to im­prove health.

How­ever, in our re­cent trawl through the lit­er­a­ture, we didn’t find any stud­ies that in­ves­ti­gated the ef­fects of raw cocoa on re­duc­ing the risk of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease.All the stud­ies we found used in­dus­tri­ally-pro­duced choco­late or cocoa – which could po­ten­tially con­tain more of the ac­tive com­pounds, the fla­vanols, than nat­u­ral cocoa.

A ma­jor weak­ness of the re­search is that a lot of it was in­dus­try funded, and the choco­late used in the stud­ies was spe­cially de­signed for the re­search.This al­lows for bet­ter con­trol in the stud­ies as well as the abil­ity to pack more of the ac­tive epi­cat­e­chins into a smaller bar. But it also takes the re­search re­sults even fur­ther away from the im­pact com­mer­cially avail­able choco­late would have on a typ­i­cal con­sumer.

So, while choco­late is not a health food in the true sense, the re­search does show some in­ter­est­ing ef­fects.The best cur­rent ad­vice is that com­mer­cially avail­able choco­late should not be eaten just to im­prove health – but that doesn’t stop it from tast­ing good.

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