Healthful Chocolate

Thursday, April 12, 2007

IN PRE-COLUMBIAN Mesoamerica, a bitter concoction of cacao beans, water and spices was a delicacy reserved for only the most fortunate in Aztec society. After the conquistadors' arrival, cocoa powder and sugar came together to produce the chocolate taste we know, and the cacao tree fast became a cash crop. Nowadays, chocolate is an everyday indulgence -- though at best not really every day. After all, it is sugary, fattening, bad for you.

Or is it? An analysis published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that regular chocolate consumption can lower your blood pressure. German scientists reviewed a number of studies on different substances containing polyphenols, compounds that seem to have salubrious effects on the human cardiovascular system. They found that, contrary to some assertions, black and green tea appear to have no marked effect on blood pressure. Cocoa-rich diets, on the other hand, had lowered both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in study subjects after only two weeks. Measured decreases were about equal to what you can expect from standard hypertension medications. That means a decrease in the likelihood of stroke by about 20 percent and coronary heart disease by about 10 percent, the report estimates.

Science has come through once again. It was only late last year that we heard that red wine contains a fantastically healthful chemical, resveratrol, that appears to counter the effects of fatty diets. Pinot noir and a chocolate bar no doubt sound like a great prescription for overweight Americans.

Sound too good to be true? You're right; there's a bit of fine print. The fat and sugar that come with cocoa's polyphenols still clog your arteries and invite diabetes, and not all subjects showed equally dramatic results. If your blood pressure is dangerously high, regularly eating 100 grams or so of dark chocolate might help, but even then the report cannot reliably predict what the long-term effects of such a habit might be. So, yes, back to the broccoli.

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