Most people think of chocolate as a decadent dessert that should be avoided by health-conscious consumers. The idea that chocolate could be health food seems too good to be true. Yet there is research to support it.
This may be news in the 21st century, but the first people to use chocolate knew that it had medicinal properties. Three thousand years ago they discovered that chocolate, which they consumed as a beverage, gave the user energy. In fact, these prehistoric Olmec Indians prized chocolate so much that they buried a pot of it with dead dignitaries, to get them through the arduous journey to the next life.
Chocolate continues to be popular in the region where cacao was first domesticated. The Kuna Indians of Panama consume up to five cups of cocoa a day and include cacao in many of their traditional recipes.
Scientists from Harvard Medical School were intrigued to learn that the Kuna seem to have naturally low blood pressure. Yet when they migrate to other countries, the Kuna can develop hypertension.
The researchers wondered if their cocoa-rich diet might be responsible. The study they conducted showed that cocoa with high levels of antioxidant flavonoid compounds can lower blood pressure, even in Bostonians. Though it is no substitute for blood pressure medication, it might be a good addition to a prudent diet.
These flavonoid compounds, which are somewhat similar to the antioxidant ingredients in tea, grapes and wine, have other health benefits. Research at the University of California, Davis, has demonstrated that cocoa flavonoids can help keep blood platelets from sticking together and forming clots. The action is similar to that of aspirin, although aspirin is stronger.
We asked Dr. Carl Keen, who directed this research, how much chocolate it takes to get this benefit. He replied, “We did a small study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in which we had individuals consume what effectively was a small handful of M&Ms, about 30 grams. It turned out this was sufficient.”
Dr. Keen’s group uses special cocoa and chocolate in its studies. It is supplied by the Mars candy company, which marks some of its products with the “Cocoapro” trademark to designate high flavonoid content.
Other chocolate may have similar benefits, but to maximize flavonoids, consumers should look for cocoa that has not been processed with alkali (Dutch-processed). Some brands that meet this criterion include El Rey, Guittard, Scharffen Berger and Valrhona. Hershey also produces cocoa that is not alkali-processed.
There is still one big problem with considering chocolate as health food. Most traditional dessert recipes are full of saturated fat from butter and cream. But you can make delicious chocolate desserts using healthful monounsaturated fat.
We have prepared a cookbook that summarizes the health benefits of chocolate and provides recipes for reduced-fat, reduced-calorie treats you can easily make at home. Anyone who would like a copy of Chocolate Without Guilt may send $14.95 plus $3 postage and handling to: People’s Pharmacy, Dept. CWG, P. O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.

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