Chocoholics everywhere have reveled in recent reports that dark
chocolate might actually be good for their health. Sound like the
beginning of a new health craze? Well, the jury is still out on
the long-term health benefits of consuming dark chocolate, but
there are some promising findings about this sweet indulgence.
What is it about dark chocolate that is potentially good for you?
Believe it or not, chocolate is a complex substance containing
a number of valuable compounds including sterols, fiber, minerals
and flavonoids. The compound currently of most interest is flavonoids,
antioxidants found in a number of foods such as red wine, green
tea, apples, and yes, chocolate. What do these antioxidants do?
Preliminary evidence suggests that they can ward off vascular disease
(vascular disease is a precursor to heart attacks, strokes, diabetes,
dementia and hypertension), in part, by helping the body make or
preserve a chemical called nitric oxide, which improves blood flow.
Cocoa is a particularly rich source of flavonoids, and dark chocolate
typically contains a higher percentage of cocoa than other types
of chocolate. Basically, the darker the chocolate, and the more
bitter, usually the better.
Drs. Michael Quon and Rajaram Karne, researchers at the National
Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, are excited
by the possible benefits of chocolate. Quon, who is chief of NCCAM's
intramural diabetes unit, explains, "Chocolate is a tasty food
that also has the potential for improving metabolic and cardiovascular
physiology. It's what we call a functional food — a food that has
potential health benefits." These researchers are interested in
the benefits of a particular flavonoid found in cocoa called epicatechin.
They believe this is the active ingredient in chocolate that is
beneficial for cardiovascular health.
To test this hypothesis, NCCAM is currently recruiting volunteers
for a clinical trial (see advertisement on p. 15) that will examine
the effects of dark chocolate on blood pressure and insulin sensitivity
in patients with hypertension. They want to know if the epicatechin
in chocolate can help decrease insulin resistance in hypertensive
patients, which would in turn increase the production of nitric
oxide. Nitric oxide helps prevent the constriction of the arteries
and capillaries in the body, increasing blood flow and improving
vascular function. The outcome of this study will begin to answer
questions about the benefits of consuming dark chocolate. Because
cardiovascular and metabolic diseases are intricately linked, epicatechin
may prove to be a valuable preventive for a host of conditions
including diabetes, obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Before you rush out to buy your favorite candy bar, however, there
are a few things you should know. Most chocolate is not flavonoid-rich.
In fact, the process used to make chocolate often destroys much
of its antioxidant properties. Consumers usually have no way of
knowing whether a chocolate product is flavonoid-rich. Quon cautions, "It
is premature to say that people should be eating chocolate for
health benefits — most studies have only shown short-term benefits." There
is potential, however, and that is what NCCAM plans to examine
more closely in its dark chocolate clinical trial. So chocoholics
don't despair — there is still hope.