New Promises for Chocolate

March 5, 2008
Chocolate has been building a deliciously healthy reputation as a result of research into the benefits of its unique phytochemicals.

Nearly everybody loves chocolate, but last year saw it segue from an indulgence to a health food. How did that trend happen? The simple answer is phytochemicals. Chocolate is a rich source of polyphenols, a class of compounds that act as potent antioxidants. (This class also includes resveratrol, the “red wine” compound made famous by the “French Paradox” - another reason red wine and chocolate seem made for each other.)

The latest news in chocolate, however, may be its potential to lower blood pressure. At least that was the suggestion from a study published last summer in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. In this study, 44 adults aged 56 through 73 years (24 women, 20 men) with untreated upper-range prehypertension or stage 1 hypertension without concomitant risk factors participated in a clinical trial conducted at a primary care clinic in Duisburg, Germany between January 2005 and December 2006. Every day for 18 weeks, the participants, randomly assigned to two different groups, ate either 6.3 g (30 kcal) of dark chocolate containing 30 mg of polyphenols or matching polyphenol-free white chocolate.

The results were quite encouraging for chocolate lovers. Those subjects eating small amounts of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate as part of a usual diet exhibited reduced blood pressure and improved formation of nitric oxide, a vasodilator. These results were consistent with a previous analysis of the compiled data from five different German studies in which a total of 87 cocoa-eating subjects lowered systolic blood pressure by an average of 4.7 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by 2.8 mmHg, compared to 86 controls.

There are many creative ways to use chocolate, and the emerging picture of chocolate is that its a treat with many potential health benefits. Its decadent reputation is a byproduct of the sugar and saturated fat that so often accompanies chocolate desserts. But with dark chocolate – the richest source of chocolate polyphenols – becoming so popular on the tails of the polyphenol health boom, consumers are learning to savor their chocolate-based antioxidants in more satisfying, yet lower-calorie forms.

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