Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Dark Chocolate a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Daily Dark Chocolate Good for the Heart, Loaded With Flavonoids

Here's news that's hard not to like. Eating a small, 1.6-ounce bar of dark chocolate every day is good for you. Very good for you, find Mary Engler, PhD, RN, of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues.

Now here is a medical experiment you would love to volunteer for. Engler's team divided 21 healthy adults into two groups. One group got a Dove Dark Chocolate bar every day for two weeks. Like other dark chocolate bars with high-cocoa content, this one is loaded with something called epicatechin. Epicatechin is a particularly active member of a group of compounds called plant flavoniods. Flavoniods keep cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels,
reduce the risk of blood clots, and slow down the immune responses that lead to clogged arteries.

The second group that didn't get Dove bars wasn't totally left out. They, too, got dark chocolate bars. But their treats had the flavoniods taken out.

All subjects underwent high-tech evaluation of how well the blood vessels dilate and relax -- an indictor of healthy blood vessel function. Blood vessel stiffness indicates diseased vessels and possible atherosclerosis. Those who got the full-flavonoid chocolate did significantly better. Why? Blood tests showed that high levels of epicatechin were coursing through their arteries.

"This is the longest clinical trial to date to show improvement in blood vessel function from consuming flavonoid-rich dark chocolate daily over an extended period of time," Engler says in a news release. "It is likely that the elevated blood levels of epicatechin triggered the release of active substances that ... increase blood flow in the artery. Better blood flow is good for your heart."

Why Dark Chocolate Is Different

Not all chocolate is created equal. Dark chocolate contains a lot more cocoa than other forms of chocolate. And standard chocolate manufacturing destroys up to half of the flavoniods. But chocolate companies have now learned to make dark chocolate that keeps up to 95% of its flavoniods.

Sure, this seems like a scam. Can't you get more and better flavoniods from other foods?

Surprisingly, the answer is "not really." Engler says that dark chocolate
"Many people don't realize that chocolate is plant-derived, as are the
fruits and vegetables recommended for a healthy heart," Engler says.

While a little dark chocolate is good, a lot is not better. Chocolate still is loaded with calories. If you're going to eat more chocolate, you'll have to cut back somewhere else. And remember that a balanced diet -- and plenty of exercise -- is still the key to heart health.

Chocolate is one of my favorite weaknesses or treats (depending on how you look at it), and I am not alone. It has long has been heralded as an aphrodisiac and is said to raise the serotonin levels in the body, thereby helping to chase away the blues. Dark chocolate has recently been classified as an antioxidant, meaning that it reduces the free radicals in the body. That is certainly more than a mouthful to say of this gastric delight.

But have you ever wondered how this pleasurable sweet came to be?

Dating back more than 2,000 years ago to the time of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans who occupied what is now Central America, chocolate was cherished even back then. The Mayans were the first to discover that they could make a frothy, slightly bitter, beverage from crushed cacao beans. This beverage was reserved for royalty, priests, and the highest levels of society.

The Aztecs created a warm drink from the beans called chcoclatl, meaning "warm liquid," and they so valued cocoa beans that they used them as currency.

Christopher Columbus was the first to bring cacao beans back from the New World, but it was not until the conquistador, Hernando Cortez, actually tasted chocolatl in 1519 that the pleasures of chocolate were truly experienced by someone from the "civilized" western world. Cortez was the one to add sugar cane to the cocoa to soften the bitter taste. And upon his return to Spain, he re-introduced the modified chocolate beverage to the Spanish court.

The drink was such a hit that it led to the agricultural production of cocoa beans in Jamaica, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru. Spanish monks were even pressed into service to process the beans, and a new agricultural industry was born. The joys of chocolate spread throughout Europe, and the rest is history! Today chocolate is a highly popular treat for all and is served in numerous forms.

So, the next time you indulge in a chocolaty treat, say a little thank you to the Aztecs and Mayans who discovered the first cacao beans and to Hernando Cortez who made it all possible. You might also want to add a thank you to the scientists who have found all kinds of wonderful benefits to enjoying a chocolate treat.

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