Chocolate Packed with Heart-Healthy Components

Chocolate's flavonoids, theobromine and other components go right to the heart.

By David Feder, R.D., Managing Editor

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With most chocolate consumed from Christmas through Easter, by the time spring is in full bloom — 150 million chocolate Santa Clauses, 36 million boxes of chocolate hearts and 90 million Easter bunnies later — many of us feel at least some measure of chocolate-covered guilt. But like those aforementioned confections, the guilt may turn out hollow. At least partly.

While it's true overindulgence in any sweet is not a healthy thing, cocoa and chocolate are staking out more and more territory in the domain of functional foods — foods that contain compounds such as phytochemicals, which are believed to provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition. And that's good news, considering Americans spending nearly $15 billion to eat almost 3.5 billion pounds of the seductive substance each year, according to Susan Smith of the Chocolate Manufacturers Assn., McLean, Va.

Cocoa, derived from the cacao tree, is the result of processing fermented, dried cocoa beans. The dried beans are roasted and ground, creating a high-fat chocolate "liquor." If this liquor is allowed to cool and solidify, the result is plain, unsweetened chocolate (often sold as baking chocolate).

If the liquor is pressed to separate and remove the fat, the resulting products are cocoa and cocoa butter. Each of these may, in turn, be combined with other ingredients to make confections such as chocolate bars or further processed into cocoa powder or hot chocolate mixes. Cocoa butter also is used in other food products and cosmetics.

Chocolate has a centuries-old association with health and energy, going back to ancient Mesoamerica and the Aztecs. But modern science, too, has spent decades looking at the compounds in chocolate to back up the lore.

A number of compounds in the classes called flavonoids and flavonols found in cocoa products, including dark and milk chocolate, show evidence of contributing to the maintenance of heart and vascular health. Flavonoids and flavonols also are found in tea, apples, grapes and a host of other plant foods. These compounds, which include catechins, epicatechins and procyanidins, have also been linked to protective effects against other diseases, such as cancer and urinary tract infections.

Theobromine for high blood pressure

Another natural cocoa component also associated with health is the caffeine "cousin" theobromine. Theobromine is an alkaloid in the class of compounds called xanthines or, more specifically, methylxanthines, which include caffeine and theophylline (also in chocolate, as well as in tea).

Theobromine has some effects similar to caffeine. It is a mild diuretic (stimulates urine production), a mild stimulant and relaxes the muscles of the lungs' bronchial pathways. Concentrated theobromine is sometimes used clinically as a diuretic, particularly in cases of cardiac failure. It's also been used in clinical settings for its vasodilation properties (ability to dilate blood vessels). This has made theobromine a useful treatment for high blood pressure.

One study generating a sweet surge of excitement was last fall's discovery that theobromine, at least in tablet form, was nearly one-third more effective than codeine for treating a persistent cough. The research, conducted at Imperial College London and published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) journal, found theobromine suppressed the vagus nerve activity responsible for causing coughing. The theobromine worked better than codeine against induced coughs in volunteers and caused no adverse effects. The study was small, but the results certainly encourage further investigation.

Theobromine amounts differ with the type of chocolate. The darker and higher the quality of chocolates — that is, chocolates from richer beans and higher cocoa content — the higher the levels of theobromine and, in fact, the other beneficial phytochemicals.

In some cases, chocolate has proven to be richer in these healthful compounds than other foods usually associated with good health. For example, dark chocolate has more flavonoids than green and black tea, red wine and even blueberries.

Rich in flavonoids

Scientists seeking the chocolate bullet of health have spent years looking at the flavonoid group of chemicals as being especially important. One recently described flavonoid, epicatechin, was discovered to be exceptionally beneficial to vascular function and is considered key to the beneficial effects of chocolate on the inner linings of blood vessels.

Flavonoids, long recognized as powerful antioxidants, are found in a variety of plants. Their beneficial effects read like a who's who of cardiovascular system support, including properties such as suppressing blood platelet aggregation, regulating inflammatory action, inhibiting atherosclerosis, decreasing LDL cholesterol and decreasing the body's inflammatory immune responses.

New studies back up earlier research showing the antioxidants in dark chocolate and cocoa powder may increase HDL (so-called "good") cholesterol by as much as 10 percent and reduce LDL cholesterol oxidation, a process that normally leads to artery-clogging plaques. All these favorable functions mean chocolate may reduce risks for strokes or heart attacks.

Chocolate is not bad, and it may have beneficial effects, according to Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., at Pennsylvania State University. "People should not feel guilty about including chocolate — especially cocoa powder and dark chocolate — as a part of a balanced and healthy diet. Moderation is the key," says Kris-Etherton, whose own research has contributed significantly to understanding chocolate's role in health.

Best of all, most studies on chocolate (one exception being the theobromine and cough suppression study, above) focus on amounts which folks can enjoy with relative impunity: a few ounces or less daily.

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