By ERIN ALLDAY
San Francisco Chronicle
July 10, 2007
It's time for chocolate lovers everywhere to celebrate.
German scientists are reporting that the confection really is good for you. In very, very small doses, anyway.
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that one bite, or less than a quarter of an ounce, of dark chocolate eaten once a day significantly lowered blood pressure in people who participated in an 18-week clinical trial.
It's the first time researchers have been able to say that a small dose of commercially available chocolate has direct health benefits. Previous chocolate studies have almost always used large doses of chocolate or samples created in labs to pack in extra cocoa flavanols -- the chemical in chocolate thought to relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure.
But the chocolate used in those studies wasn't practical for people to eat every day, because it either didn't taste very good or was heavy on the calories.
If people can get the health benefits of chocolate without the weight gain often associated with it, that's great news, said Seneca Klassen, who could be a little biased as co-owner of Bittersweet Chocolate Cafe in San Francisco.
"Everything should be in moderation, but, yes, clearly there are some health benefits to chocolate," Klassen said. "I have a couple of customers who buy the same bar of chocolate every time and spend a week or two eating it. A little bit can go a long way."
Some nutritionists go so far as to call chocolate a health food. But many cardiologists -- even those who confess to having a sweet tooth -- aren't quite ready to prescribe chocolate alongside blood pressure medication or daily doses of baby aspirin.
"Sure, you could add a piece of dark chocolate to your prescription. But there are going to be very few people who should rely on that alone," said Dr. Stanley Rockson, chief of consultative cardiology at Stanford University Medical Center.
Still, he said, most of the measures patients have to take to lower their blood pressure aren't fun -- exercising daily and skipping salty and fatty foods, for example -- so "comparable to some of the more draconian measures we make people go through, obviously telling them to eat chocolate is a little easier to comply with."
For more than a decade, scientists have studied the potential health benefits of chocolate, just as they've looked at wine, coffee and other treats that seem sinful to show that they might not be so bad.
The results have been mostly favorable. But when it comes to chocolate, only the dark stuff carries health benefits -- because it allows more flavanols to survive the processing of cocoa and doesn't have nearly as many fat and sugar calories as milk chocolate.
It is thought that chocolate lowers blood pressure when cocoa flavanols spur the release of nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels and increases blood flow. Chocolate also has been linked to improved learning and memory, also due to improved circulation.
The German study was paid for by the University Hospital of Cologne in Germany, and is one of the first chocolate studies not funded by a chocolate manufacturer. It used a popular candy bar, Ritter Sport semisweet, that is 50 percent cacao. But most researchers say consumers should look for cacao percentages of 65 percent or higher for health benefits.
The study involved just 44 subjects, all of whom were in good health other than having slightly high blood pressure. The volunteers were divided into two groups, one of which ate semisweet chocolate and the other white chocolate -- which doesn't actually have any cocoa in it.
Each person in the semisweet group was asked to eat one square -- 6.3 grams and 30 calories -- just before bedtime every day for 18 weeks. Over that time, systolic blood pressure fell by 3 points and diastolic by 2 points for the semisweet chocolate eaters; blood pressure rates stayed the same for the white chocolate group.
That might not sound like much of a change in blood pressure, but cardiologists said it's a significant drop.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
Publish A Letter on SitNews Read Letters/Opinions