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Research Yields Sweet Results

By Lori Holuta
February 16, 2001

"Chemically speaking, chocolate really is the world's perfect food"
Nutrition Researcher Michael Levine

There's an extra reason to smile next time you receive a heart-shaped box of chocolates. New findings indicate that this traditional gift could make your heart healthier, reduce your risk of cancer, and possibly help you live a longer, healthier life.

The Antioxidant Connection
Susan Fussell of the American Cocoa Research Institute recently said, "We found out that chocolate contains an enormous amount of antioxidants - higher than any other food." She continued, "Antioxidants are very important because they help reduce the risk of developing cancer and heart disease, and they also offer some anti-aging health benefits."

Researchers at the Institute have also noticed that control subjects who ingested chocolate showed increased levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL). It has been established that a high ratio of HDL balancing your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) has the benefit of reducing the risk of heart disease.

Professor Tissa Kappagoda of the University of California - Davis has been studying the effects of chocolate's antioxidants (knows as flavanoids) on blood vessels in animals. She said, "Flavanoids found in cocoa stimulate the blood vessels to produce nitric oxide. Nitric oxide relaxes the smooth muscles in blood vessel walls."

Cocoa is just one of a group of plants that produces these beneficial antioxidants. Other sources include tea, grapes, almonds, apples, wine and strawberries.

Besides flavanoids, chocolate also contains vitamins A, B1, C, D, and E, and can contain potassium, sodium, iron, fluorine, magnesium, copper, and zinc.

Still More To Be Learned
Cocoa beans contain flavanoids, but various processing techniques will result in different amounts in the finished product. "At this point, there are going to be some products out there which have very low concentrations of flavanoids", says Carl Keen at the University of California - Davis Department of Nutrition. The chocolate industry has not yet taken steps to include this information in the nutritional data listings on food products. The Mars Company is an exception, and now marks some of their products with their own "Cocoapro" trademark. According to the company, this indicates "a promise to the consumer that chocolate products from Mars Incorporated are made from cocoa beans that are specially handled to preserve their natural goodness." This wording is vague, but seems to indicate that the company is attempting to retain the naturally present flavanoids in the finished product. It should also be noted that the Mars Company provides the lion's share of funding for nutritional research regarding chocolate.

Reaping The Benefits Of Chocolate
Keep in mind that chocolate also has a high fat content and about 150 calories per ounce. Therefore, it should be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy diet and exercise program.

Of course, these findings lead us to an important question - will children still love chocolate when they find out it's good for them?