Chocolate: The Next New Superfruit?

April 26, 2011
When researchers at the Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition compared the antioxidant activity in fruit powders, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, and hot chocolate, they found that, gram per gram, there was more antioxidant capacity, and a greater total flavanol content, in the cocoa powder. One could say cacao seeds are the new superfruit.
Chocolate High
Theobroma is Greek for "the food of the gods." One of the reasons chocolate is so popular is the natural high one gets from theobromine, which promotes blood flow and brain activity for the sleep-impaired. Caffeine is found in small doses in cacao and kola nut from which cola beverages are made. The name theobromine comes from Theobroma, which is a classification of the cacao tree. Even though it is considered to be similar to caffeine, it has a lesser effect on our central nervous system. Theobromine has been known to contribute to the belief that chocolates are aphrodisiacs and is known to increase heartbeat and dilate blood vessels, helping to reduce blood pressure.

Cocoa powder, made from an extract of the seeds and fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree, and dark chocolate had equivalent or significantly greater antioxidant capacity (ORAC), total polyphenol (TP), and total flavanol (TF) values compared to the other fruit powders and juices tested. Cacao seeds thus provide nutritive value beyond that derived from their macronutrient composition and appear to meet the popular media's definition of a "Super Fruit."

In fact, ORAC capacity of cocoa powder was significantly greater than blueberry, cranberry, and pomegranate powder, TP was somewhat greater than acai, blueberry, and cranberry powder, and total TF content of cocoa powder was significantly greater than all of the other fruit powders tested.

It is also notable that chocolate is good for your heart health. After analyzing the chocolate consumption habits of 4,970 adults aged 25 to 93 years, The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute concluded that those who regularly consumed chocolate had a lower risk of heart disease. Higher doses resulted in greater protection. In fact, those who ate chocolate five or more times per week were 80 percent less likely to have heat disease. During the study, this relationship could not be accounted for by age, sex, family history, calorie intake, education, smoking, alcohol, exercise, or fruit and vegetable consumption.

Mars is working on what is known in-house as the "healthy chocolate" initiative, reports the New York Times. No expense has been spared on its 15-year investigation into the molecular composition and nutritional effects of cocoa. These studies -- undertaken first by company technicians and later by Mars-financed academics in the U.S., Europe and Australia -- have prompted Mars to aggressively pursue patents for dozens of new manufacturing methods. Claims submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, that cocoa can be used ''in the maintenance of vascular health,'' or as an ''anti-platelet therapy,'' or ''in tableting compositions and capsule-filling compositions,'' would appear more pharmaceutical in nature than food-related.

But Mars intends to introduce a new line of products, most likely a powdered cocoa or cocoa drink that, while not explicitly promising to lower blood pressure, or increase blood flow (a potential boon for those suffering from vascular disease), will nonetheless be backed by a number of upcoming studies that suggest a range of possible, and significant, health benefits along these lines.

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