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Beyond Delicious: Could Chocolate Also Be Good for You?


Published: February 17, 2004

That Valentine's box of delectable chocolates that made your heart sing last weekend also might, if it's the right type, help make it tick better & longer, scientists gathered last week in Washington said.

Raw cocoa contains flavonoids, plant-based compounds with protective antioxidants like those in green tea. The antioxidants, which may help decrease blood pressure & improve circulation, according to preliminary study results released at a daylong session centered on the medical uses & developmental potential of the cocoa tree.

As far back as the Mayas, the South American native tree, formally called the Theobroma cacao, inspired songs praising the liquid, which they called the "food of the gods." The ancient inhabitants produced it from the beans of the tree's football-size pods.

Judging by samples of their pepper-laced version, the ancient recipe was reproduced for sessiongoers to sample, the fiery cocoa they brewed was strong enough to jolt the drinker into good health. And for centuries, people followed the Maya & Aztec prescriptions & consumed cocoa, the ground beans of the cacao, for an array of ills.

People believed it would calm their nerves, shrink their hemorrhoids, ease their hangovers, relieve their tuberculosis symptoms & help them lose weight, said Dr. Louis E. Grivetti, a professor in the nutrition department at the University of California at Davis, who spoke at the session.

The seminar was held by the National Academy of Sciences & its sponsors included the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health, the University of California, the Smithsonian & the chocolate company Mars.

Though chocolate's popularity as a favored sweet trumped its medicinal uses beginning in the mid-19th century, scientists turned again to investigating its health benefits more than a decade ago, financed partly by Mars, which is privately held. So far, researchers have begun to connect flavonoids with lowering the death rate from heart disease, said Dr. Helmut Sies, chairman of the biochemistry department at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany.

The heart benefits of chocolate consumption are far from confirmed. In-depth comparative studies still need to be conducted to learn whether certain elements of cocoa act like baby aspirin for the heart. And some experts point out that the fat in chocolate could instead be associated w/deadly cardiovascular & kidney diseases.

Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg, professor of medicine at Brigham & Women's Hospital & Harvard Medical School, investigated the Kuna Indians of the San Blas islands of Panama to examine the connection between cocoa consumption & blood pressure.

The Indians have a high-salt diet but normal blood pressure, he said, and they consume locally grown cocoa at every meal. His study tracked some Kuna Indians to the city, where they started drinking commercially ground cocoa. Then, he said, their blood pressure readings tended to rise.

While presenting the results of his research, published in the December 2003 issue of the Journal of Hypertension, Dr. Hollenberg cited a second study showing that cocoa rich in flavonoids could help increase blood flow in the brain & in the hands & legs.

The study, financed by National Institutes of Health grants & by Mars, involved 27 healthy people ages 18 to 72. Each consumed a cocoa beverage containing 900 milligrams of flavonols (a class of flavonoids) daily for 5 days. Using a finger cuff, blood flow was measured on the 1st & 5th days of the study.

After 5 days, researchers measured what they called "significant improvement" in blood flow & the function of the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels.

Dr. Hollenberg's research indicates, preliminarily, that consuming high-flavonol cocoa helps regulate the synthesis of nitric oxide, a compound in the body that helps it maintain blood pressure & blood flow in the endothelial cells. The flavonols may also help vessels dilate & help keep platelets from clustering on the blood vessel walls.

One problem in conducting the studies, said Dr. Harold H. Schmitz, director of science & external research at Mars, stems from differences in types & amounts of flavonols in commercially available chocolate & cocoa. The products are affected by the way the raw materials are handled & processed & by the variety of the cacao.

Mars came up with a patented process for cocoa, called Cocoapro & supplied it to Dr. Hollenberg for his study. The beverage in its current incarnation is much tastier than some of the earlier versions Mars scientists concocted, Dr. Schmitz said.

The company is also using Cocoapro in some of its chocolate products, including the Dove dark chocolate bar, M&M's & its CocoaVia Snacks, which it has been testing on the Internet (www.cocoavia.com) since October.

The bar, which has 80 calories & claims to lower cholesterol, is made of grains & the specially processed chocolate. It comes in 4 varieties.

Fresh cocoa beans, however, are far richer in flavonol about 10,000 milligrams per 100 grams, or about seven tablespoons than processed chocolate products. Cocoapro cocoa powder has about half the amount of flavonol, slightly under 5,000 per 100 grams.

Commercial chocolate products contain much less. For example, 100 grams of Dove dark chocolate contains only about a 1/10 of the amount of flavonol, or 500 milligrams, according to Mars.

Mars is not certain now how it will tap the consumer market for disease-fighting chocolate a powder, a bar or something else, Dr. Schmitz said.

Samples of the flavonol-enhanced chocolate available at the session last week were slightly denser, at least in the dark chocolate variety, than a commercially available chocolate bar.

Mars, which sells about $15 billion of chocolate & other confections a year, has been sponsoring cocoa research for a decade.

It has invested "into the seven figures," Dr. Schmitz said, declining to give an exact amount. Industry-paid research raises alarm among public interest groups, but Mars stressed that it had published its research in more than 70 peer-review journals.

Those include articles in 2003 with Dr. Carl L. Keen, chairman of the nutrition department at University of California at Davis, in Nutrition Today & in 2002 in Phytochemistry Review, The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal & The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

They reported that certain cocoa & chocolate could provide significant amounts of heart-healthy flavonol & improve cardiovascular health not only by improving vascular endothelial function but also by delaying harmful clotting that could improve circulation in the feet & hands & reduce inflammation.

Dr. Keen, who has been researching flavonoids in cocoa for 8 years, said they were absorbed so quickly that they stayed only briefly in the bloodstream. That may help explain why earlier research overlooked them, Dr. Keen said.

Their effect on the body is similar to that of baby aspirin, but lasts longer, he added. The cocoa could be an alternative for people who cannot tolerate aspirin, he added.

"Most chocolate that is currently available is delightful & delicious," Dr. Schmitz said, "but not necessarily good for you. We hope that in a year or two, it's possible to change that."

Dr. Hollenberg warned that chocolates, like vitamins & other substances, have to be tailored to the individual because "good isn't always good; it depends on who you are."

Chocolate's ability to be a miracle drug also depends on supplies. About 1/3 of the world's cocoa crop is lost yearly thru fungal & viral diseases & insects.

In 1998, Mars & other chocolate companies began an effort to stem the losses, which threatened a shortfall in beans vital to their business.

With the United States Agriculture Department, the Smithsonian Institution, the World Bank & other institutions, Mars & other researchers have been examining how to fend off those diseases & bolster production to create a viable cash crop on small farms in Africa & Asia.

Researchers reported at last week's session that they had identified some genes in the cacao that make it susceptible to one of the biggest scourges for cocoa farmers: witches' broom fungus, which decimated Brazil's cacao industry. The discovery, they hope, will pave the way for crops that are resistant to the fungus.



In an Obese World, Sweet Nothings Add Up


Published: March 9, 2004

How sweet it is. I'm referring to the American diet, replete with sweet foods & drinks, commercially sweetened cereals, sodas, fruit drinks & "ades," ice cream, cake, muffins, cookies & candy, as well as naturally sweet fruits & fruit juices.

We are all born liking a sweet taste, perhaps to stimulate a desire for breast milk, which is naturally sweet, or ripe edible fruit. These foods are excellent sources of nutrients that support growth & good health.

Indeed, as the American Dietetic Association points out in a new position paper on sweeteners, "By increasing palatability of nutrient-dense foods / beverages, sweeteners can promote diet healthfulness."

i.e., for a child who refuses to drink milk, the addition of sweet chocolate powder can enhance consumption of this health-promoting food. Likewise, a little sugar added to a high-fiber cereal can encourage the consumption of a food that lowers cholesterol & promotes good digestion.

But as with any substance prone to overuse, sweeteners can also work against us. Modern manufacturing has introduced a plethora of sweetened products that are less than nutritious & that could contribute to weight gain & ill health because their sweetness encourages overconsumption.

The consumption of added caloric sugars has soared in the last half-century, despite the introduction & undeniable popularity of artificial (i.e. non-nutritive) sweeteners that supply few, if any, calories.

According to the findings of the latest national nutrition survey, from 1988 to 1994, the average daily intake of added sugar varied from 40 to 120 grams a day, or 160 calories to 480 calories, or an average of 21% of daily calories.

The World Health Organization recommends half that amount & my guess is that consumption is considerably higher today, given readily observed changes in the marketplace.

There is no direct evidence that caloric sweeteners by themselves increase the risk of obesity. But there's also no question that in the US & throughout the world, rates of overweight & obesity are increasing because people are consuming more calories than they expend, even as their intake of several essential nutrients declines. This suggests that people are eating & drinking more calorically dense but nutrient-deficient foods, many if not most because they're sweet.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is the carbonated soft drink sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.(click the underlined link on the left to read more about high fructose corn syrup)  Such beverages contribute nothing but sweet calories & water & have replaced nutrient-rich milk & fruit juices in the diets of millions of Americans, especially adolescents & young adults.

The consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has skyrocketed 4,000% since the early 1970's.

By 2000, per capita annual consumption of the sweetener in this country exceeded 62 pounds, while consumption of cane & beet sugars decreased just 35%, from 100.5 pounds to 65.6 pounds per capita. That represents an annual net gain of 27 pounds of sugar in the average American diet.

Sugar's Health Effects

No responsible nutrition expert suggests abandoning all foods & drinks that contain added sugars, caloric or otherwise. But in seeking to satisfy the desire for sweetness, it helps to know what effects the various sweeteners, natural & artificial, can have on health.

Each gram of sugar, whether sucrose (table sugar, a combination of glucose & fructose from sugar cane or sugar beets) or pure fructose (fruit sugar), supplies 4 calories, the same as a gram of starch or protein. A teaspoon of sugar provides about 16 calories. Both sugars can promote tooth decay.

In most people, the small intestine contains enzymes to foster the digestion of all natural sugars, but absorption rates vary. Fructose can by itself be malabsorbed & may cause diarrhea in young children who consume large amounts of apple juice or fructose-sweetened drinks. Other sweeteners called polyols - sorbitol & mannitol, i.e., are also less than fully absorbed & can cause diarrhea in consumers of any age.

Lactose, the milk sugar, can also cause gastrointestinal upset in people who lose their ability to produce the enzyme lactase.

Fructose can blunt feelings of satiety & thus may foster overconsumption of calories. Fructose & to a lesser extent, sucrose can also raise blood levels of harmful L.D.L. cholesterol. Even though the two sugars raise blood levels of glucose, neither has been found to increase the risk of developing diabetes, unless, of course, they result in excess weight gain.

Despite the widespread belief that sugar promotes hyperactivity in children, researchers haven't found support for that. Although animals seem to undergo brain changes that suggest a kind of addiction to sugar, that has yet to be clearly demonstrated in people.

Safety of Sweeteners

In the American market, five non-nutritive sweeteners contain no calories or a negligible amount, despite being much sweeter than sucrose. They're saccharin products like Sweet'N Low, 200 to 700 times as sweet as sugar; aspartame substitutes like Nutrasweet & Equal, 160 to 200 times as sweet; acesulfame-K sweeteners like Sunett, 200 times as sweet; sucralose products like Splenda, 600 times as sweet; & neotame, 8,000 times as sweet. The sweeteners produce little or no effect on blood sugar.

Aspartame, a popular artificial sweetener used at the table, in diet sodas & in more than 6,000 foods, personal care products & pharmaceuticals can be hazardous in large amounts to people with an inherited metabolic disorder, phenylketonuria.

The American Medical Association says consumption by normal people is safe & not associated with any adverse health effects, not migraine headaches, depression or epilepsy. Reports of allergic reactions have not been supported by careful studies, a report by the American Dietetic Association states.

Saccharin remains the leading artificial sweetener. Eight million pounds a year find their way into foods, tabletop packets, beverages & personal care products. A previous link to cancer in laboratory animals has not stood the test of further research, & saccharin-containing products no longer warn of such an effect.

Sucralose, which is derived from sugar that is chemically changed to limit the body's ability to absorb it, has been tested in 110 studies in people & found free of cancer risk, reproductive damage or neurological harm. It has also been found to be safe for people with Type 2 diabetes. Granular sucralose can be used instead of table sugar in desserts & baked goods.

"Non-nutritive sweeteners could improve dietary quality if consumers were to use energy savings for consumption of nutrient-dense foods," the dietetic association concluded. This has the potential to improve nutrient intake by people who want to lose or control weight & by elderly people, who typically need & consume fewer calories.

"Non-nutritive sweeteners could also increase the palatability of fruits & vegetables that have less desirable sour or bitter qualities," the report noted.

The bottom line from the association is that sweeteners are O.K. when consumed in a reasonable amount & context.

"Sweeteners can add to the pleasure of eating & can assist consumers in improving the quality of the diet if selected in appropriate quantities & in forms that are high in micronutrients," the report concluded.

In other words, once again, it's the dose that makes the poison.

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