Not Really Chocolate (January 6, 2015)
Let me begin by first disclosing that I am an unabashed chocolate supporter and thus a recent, small, poorly publicized but very good quality study grabbed my attention. It found that three months’ consumption of a drink made from cocoa flavanols in a small group of older healthy adults with normal age-related memory loss resulted in
Also, this drink (or one very similar to it), when given to diabetics, brought their blood vessel function from severely impaired (neuropathy, visual problems and many other long-term problems in diabetics come from blood vessel damage) to normal in about a month.
Those are pretty dramatic results for a nutrient -- in this case, for cocoa flavanols. Notice that I didn’t say “chocolate”. That’s because this research, and until recently most of the research, done to establish chocolate’s positive health effects have not done with over-the-counter chocolate candy, although you wouldn't know that if you only read the headlines.
How did this whole “chocolate is healthy” thing start, anyway, when we all know that the better something tastes, the worse it is for you? Well, someone noticed that although the Kuna Indians of Panama have normal risk factors for cardiovascular disease, they also have one of the lowest rates of it in the world. Plus, when they move away from home, they get as much heart disease as everyone else, so that means it isn’t a matter of heredity. (“Wow! Look at that! Why is that?” is what launches most research and this was no exception.)
This particular investigation found that the Kuna typically drink several cups a day of a type of cocoa drink. Of course the Kunas’ drink is made from dried ground beans, whereas we husk and roast them and then process them further. Technically what they are drinking is “cacao”, which is the name of the bush and the uncooked form of the bean. After you roast and husk the cacao beans, you call them "cocoa beans" and they are then usually further processed by removing most of the fat (cocoa butter), so then what you have left are cocoa solids. The cocoa solids are used to make cocoa powder and chocolate -- the darker the chocolate, the more cocoa solids (and theoretically, the more flavanols) it contains.
What was impressive about this cacao drink was how much cacao flavanols it contained. Flavanols generally are found in foods like wine, tea, fruits and vegetables. They are a type of polyphenol (you can see three of them -- phenols, that is -- to the right) which themselves are a type of antioxidant. Antioxidants in general are a big deal because oxidation is a process implicated in most degenerative diseases. Other antioxidants that cocoa contains are catechins and epicatechins (the latter of which seem to protect the brain from stroke damage), also resveratrol (a famous wine antioxidant). Lots of good stuff. Are you still with me? I am loading you up with this terminology in case you read any further on the subject, because I've noticed that most popular writers are very sloppy about mixing up "cacao" and "cocoa" and the different classes of antioxidants.
Anyway, it seems that chocolate really can be good for you, and not just in huge quantities and not just in its raw form. Cocoa solids produce very much the same effect as cacao, and cocoa solids are what was used to make the flavanol-rich drink I started out talking about (as well as natural cocoa powder).
There are studies finding health benefits with cacao/raw cocoa in the areas of coronary heart disease and stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, abdominal obesity, high cholesterol, triglycerides and elevated fasting glucose. Various cacao/cocoa/chocolate products have also produced positive results in the areas of depression, anxiety and stress.
All that is well and good, and even better, it happens that a number of studies have also been done on regular ole chocolate candy, with similarly positive results. People who ate larger quantities of dark chocolate saw their blood pressures drop, even – and especially – if it was high to begin with. Even small amounts of dark chocolate (around 1.5 ounces) lessened the tendency of blood to unduly clot, improved the energy of adults with chronic fatigue syndrome (without any weight gain!) and were protective of the brain in patients with stroke.
I really want to mention one more benefit to chocolate consumption, The beneficial bacteria in the colon (particularly bifidobacterium and lactobacillus) like to eat dark chocolate. The nasty ones (like clostridium and staphylococcus) do not like it. Regular consumption of dark chocolate actually enhances the numbers of good bacteria – and decreases the numbers of bad ones – in the colon. Plus the bacteria return the favor by breaking down the too-large-for-normal-absorption flavanols into molecules that are smaller, easily absorbed – and beneficially active in the body. Who woulda thunk it.
Here’s the trick, though. You manage to read all this and the first thing you want to do is try to replicate its results in your own life. And you are not going to be able to do that by eating chocolate cupcakes etc. because in normal food processing, flavanols are removed from chocolate. They are bitter and so they are undesirable. (Mars Chocolate developed a special process to isolate and preserve the flavanols in powdered form, and that’s what was used to make the drinks in those first two research studies I mentioned.)
So do we have to wait while a bunch of myopic, pointy-headed scientists fiddle around with flavanol drinks and pills and do long-term research studies on all this? Hell, no! We're Americans and we want our healthy chocolate thingies NOW. And the food manufacturers are happily, ah, giving it to us, just like they always do. Next time I'm going to sort through the different cacao, cocoa and chocolate products out there and try to figure out which ones might actually rate as healthy, if any of them do. That way we will have something to eat while we wait for Mars Chocolate to finish testing their flavanol pills (another couple of years at least).
--dr. diane holmes
Copyright © 2015