Cocoa – The New Health Food?
Regular consumption of polyphenol-rich cocoa products like dark chocolate may be considered a part of a blood pressure lowering diet, provided there is no total gain in calorie intake, say German researchers.
However the researchers cautioned against a chocolate eating binge. “In other words, for the average chocolate nibbler, the jury is still out on the sweet’s health effect,” said Dr Dirk Taubert, senior lecturer in pharmacology and toxicology at the University Hospital of Cologne, Germany.
The drop in blood pressure among participants who consumed cocoa products for at least two weeks was in the same range as achieved by someone taking drugs commonly prescribed to control blood pressure. The fall in blood pressure credited to cocoa could be expected to reduce the risk of strokes by 20% and coronary heart disease by 10%.
The benefits are believed to come from compounds known as polyphenols (or flavanoids) or more specifically procyanids in cocoa.
“But don’t start gobbling up chocolate bars yet,” caution Taubert. “Treats such as dark chocolate may be substituted for other high-calorie desserts but we believe that any dietary advice must account for the high sugar, fat and calorie intake with most cocoa products.”
In a separate study conducted, Dr Norman Hollenberg, professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School found similar health benefits in the Cuna Indian tribe in Panama. The tribe drinks cocoa exclusively. However according to Hollenberg, the cocoa is low in flavanoids as it imparts a bitter taste and is hence removed. He cautioned that the findings of the Cuna tribe do not mean that people can indulge in chocolates.
“Chocolates in general, can never be health food as it poses a calorie problem,” said Hollenberg. “But if a lot of fat is removed from chocolate, I see a bright future for cocoa!”
Hollenberg said he studies the Cuna people as those who live on native islands do not have hypertension. However migration to cities has caused an increase in the tribe members. A major difference is the consumption of their own prepared cocoa instead of when they adapt to the local diets of the cities.
In addition to low blood pressure, the native Cunas also do not suffer from dementia.
Dr Ian MacDonald, professor at the school of biomedical sciences, University of Nottingham, England reported that among the women given drinks of cocoa, there was a significant increase in blood flow to the brain compared with subjects who did not drink the cocoa.
This raises the prospect of using flavanoid in the treatment of dementia, marked by decreased blood flow in the brain, and in maintaining overall cardiovascular health.
The next step, MacDonald said, is to move from healthy subjects to people who have ‘compromised’ blood flow to the brain. A nice cup of the right kind of cocoa could hold the promise of promoting brain function as people age, he said.