The “Food of the Gods” Is Good for You!

Chocolate for
Longer and Happier Life

Cocoa products decrease blood pressure and
risk of cardiovascular and all-cause mortality

By Richard P. Huemer, M.D.

There are four basic food groups: dark chocolate,
milk chocolate, white chocolate, and chocolate truffles.

— Anonymous

very odd-numbered year, a chocolatier in Portland, Oregon, casts several hundred medallions of dark chocolate bearing the likeness of the great chemist Linus Pauling and ships them, all foil-wrapped and glittering, to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University (his alma mater) in Corvallis. The Institute, arguably the nation’s premier organization for scientific research on the health benefits of natural substances, distributes the tasty treats to attendees at its biennial Diet and Optimum Health conference in Portland.

Why does a health-related institute distribute candy? Because it’s chocolate, which is one kind of candy that’s actually good for us. The LPI scientists are not endorsing fat and sugar, which are, alas, a substantial part of the chocolate experience. Instead, they’re tacitly endorsing beneficial polyphenols, a broad category of plant-derived compounds that include the highly desirable flavonoids; of these, a subgroup called flavanols are the major health-giving components of chocolate and its relatively fat-free cousin, cocoa.

From Cacao Seeds to Cocoa and Chocolate

Cocoa and chocolate are made from the seeds of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao (Theobroma means “food of the gods”), native to Central America. The seeds contain dark, bitter cocoa solids, which are the primary source of chocolate flavor and of the healthful flavanols. They are also very rich in cocoa butter, a sweet-tasting fat whose exceptional resistance to rancidity is due to its content of natural antioxidants. The seeds (or beans, as they’re usually called) are fermented, dried, roasted, and ground, yielding a thick, creamy paste called chocolate liquor. If most of the cocoa butter is extracted from the liquor, the resulting solid is cocoa powder, which is used to make delectable puddings, cakes, beverages, etc. Yum!

Cocoa powder comes in two basic forms: natural, which is somewhat acidic and bitter, and Dutch-processed, or “Dutched,” which is alkalinized to produce a mellower flavor. Unfortunately, this process destroys most of the flavanols and other flavonoids, so the tradeoff isn’t worth it for those who are interested in reaping the health benefits of cocoa. (The Netherlands, by the way, is the world’s leading cocoa-processing country; the USA is second.)

To make the different kinds of chocolate, the liquor is processed so as to produce different relative combinations of cocoa solids (natural, of course) and cocoa butter, together with added ingredients, especially sugar and vanilla (and, usually, an emulsifying agent, such as soy lecithin). Dark chocolate contains the most cocoa solids (hence the most flavanols) and the least sugar. Milk chocolate contains significantly less cocoa solids, with more sugar and, of course, milk. White chocolate is a misnomer—it’s technically not chocolate at all, because it contains no cocoa solids; its only cacao component is cocoa butter (the source of its delicate chocolaty flavor), with added sugar, milk, and vanilla.

Does Cocoa Improve Cardiovascular Health?

Recently, Dutch researchers published the results of a long-term study of 470 healthy men in the town of Zutphen.1 Their aim was to determine whether habitual cocoa intake was related to reduced blood pressure and a reduced risk for cardiovascular mortality. At the beginning, middle, and end of the 15-year period, the men (whose average age at the beginning was 72) had physical examinations and were interviewed by experienced dieticians to assess their dietary habits. Their intake of calories and nutrients was calculated for each of the three interview years, as was their total daily cocoa intake. The latter was the sum of the intakes from items on a list of 24 cocoa-containing foods, including, of course, chocolate.

At the outset of the study, cocoa consumption in the study group ranged from none to appreciable. The lowest tertile in this ranking (i.e., the lowest one-third) consumed none; the middle tertile consumed a median amount of 0.9 g/day; and the highest tertile consumed a median amount of 4.2 g/day (1 g = 0.035 oz, so these were small amounts). The 4.2-g/day amount corresponds roughly to 10 g/day (0.35 oz/day) of dark chocolate. Plain chocolate and chocolate candy bars (consisting of about 15–40% cocoa by weight) constituted about two-thirds of the total daily cocoa intake.

It’s Good to Be PEA-Brained

Why are people so crazy about chocolate? It’s not just that there is simply nothing in the world quite like it (and don’t say “carob,” OK?) for a blend of heavenly flavor and luscious texture. No, it’s more than that—it just makes you feel so good to indulge yourself—and to indulge someone you love—with something so indescribably delicious and satisfying. Little wonder that chocolate is the quintessential food of love, a Valentine’s Day “must.”

Lest we dissolve into a puddle of hearts-and-flowers (and chocolate!) mush here, let’s quickly inject a dose of unsentimental science: everything we think and feel and dream, including love, is nothing more than a manifestation of brain chemistry in all its marvelous complexity. Neurologists have discovered that there is a brain chemical strongly associated with the early stage of romantic love—that joyous phase of exalted, almost lunatic obsession with the divine object of our affection.

In other words, romantic love has a chemical name: it’s phenylethylamine (nicknamed PEA). It’s a simple organic compound of the monoamine class, and our brains make a lot of it when we’re in the throes of romantic love. Talk about a feel-good compound! Now, here’s the thing: PEA is found in many foods, and one in particular stands out for its PEA content. You guessed it: chocolate!

This has led some people to speculate that we love chocolate so much because it tickles our “love button,” giving us a hint of that glorious feeling. Well, maybe—but maybe not. Cooler heads (probably not in love) have pointed out that PEA is quickly metabolized in the circulation by the enzyme MAO-B (a monoamine oxidase), so very little of it gets through to our brains. Oh, well . . . but so what? We still love chocolate!

PEA, by the way, is the parent of a host of psychoactive derivatives, including neurotransmitters, hormones, stimulants, antidepressants, and hallucinogens. Among them are the profoundly important catecholamines (notably dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline), as well as ephedrine, amphetamines, and mescaline. Other psychoactive compounds found in chocolate that are not PEA derivatives include the calming neurotransmitter serotonin and the stimulants caffeine and theobromine (the latter is toxic to dogs, which should never be allowed to eat chocolate).

Believing that a preference for chocolate over other types of candy might be related to general health and well-being, a Finnish research team conducted a 3-decades-long epidemiological study on male candy eaters (average age 76 at the end of the study).1 Via mailed questionnaires, they assessed the men’s frequency (but not amount) and preference of candy consumption (non-candy eaters were excluded), as well as other lifestyle choices, general physical condition, diseases, mood (e.g., happiness or depression), and various attitudes toward life that would indicate their state of well-being.

The results showed that a preference for chocolate over other types of candy was significantly associated with better physical and emotional health—including, interestingly, having leaner waists, lower body mass index, and less diabetes, as well as feeling happier, less lonely, and more optimistic about the future. A chocolate preference was also, however, associated with a healthier lifestyle in general, which made it impossible, in this study, to establish any cause and effect related to chocolate.

Nonetheless, it’s intriguing to think that, for whatever reason, chocolate and good health seem to go hand to hand to some degree. Is it the flavanols? Is it PEA? Is it just the wonderful taste? Who knows? Who cares? Have a truffle!

Reference

  1. Strandberg TE, Strandberg AY, Pitkälä K, Salomaa VV, Tilvis RS, Miettinen TA. Chocolate, well-being and health among elderly men. Eur J Clin Nutr 2007 Feb 28 [online preprint].

Drugs from Mars?

Many modern drugs are new twists—patentable chemical derivatives synthesized in the laboratory—on natural molecules, which are not patentable (except for DNA sequences). Since chocolate is chock-full of bioactive molecules that appear to offer a variety of health benefits, one might suppose that companies would try to develop and commercialize drugs derived from chocolate.

One would be right. Mars—the candy company, not the planet—is spending millions on intensive research on cocoa, including studies of the effects of high-flavanol cocoa on arterial function. The researchers are particularly interested in cocoa’s ability to allow arteries to dilate more efficiently, facilitating increased blood flow when the body requires more oxygen and nutrients to meet increased energy demands.

Mars is also spending big-time on devising molecules that mimic the characteristics of cocoa’s flavanols. That’s the first step in drug development, but a lengthy and extremely expensive process must ensue before a drug reaches the marketplace. So far, Big Pharma has not committed to sharing the costs with Mars, whose chief science officer, Dr. Harold Schmitz, told a reporter for Reuters Health in 2006 that a pharmaceutical product from cocoa flavanol chemistry is at least seven to ten years away.1

Reference

  1. Doering C. Cocoa-derived medicines still years away—experts. Reuters Health, Feb. 10, 2006.

Apparently It Does

The study’s results might surprise those who disdain candy as harmful, but not those who have been following the recent literature on cocoa flavanols and health. After adjusting the data for potentially confounding factors, the researchers found that cocoa intake was inversely related to blood pressure, i.e., those men in the highest tertile of cocoa consumption had lower systolic and diastolic blood pressures (by small but significant amounts) than those in the lowest tertile.

Similarly, cocoa intake was inversely related to the risk for cardiovascular mortality over the 15-year period: the highest tertile had a 50% reduced risk compared with the lowest tertile, after the data were adjusted for differences in age, body mass index, lifestyle factors, drug use, and food and calorie intake. And when the all-cause mortality statistics were examined (i.e., death from any cause), the researchers found a 47% reduced risk in the highest tertile of cocoa consumption.

But Results Must Be Interpreted Cautiously

In any observational study, interpretation of the results must be tempered by the possibility of residual confounding. That is, the findings could be inaccurate because of effects due to unknown or unmeasured variables. In this study, the authors point out, cocoa users consumed less meat and coffee than cocoa nonusers, and they consumed more dairy products, sugar confectionary, cookies, and savory foods; they were also more likely to consume alcoholic beverages and nuts and seeds.

Interestingly, although cocoa consumption was positively associated with caloric intake, no such positive association was seen with body mass index (which can be measured precisely) or physical activity. This led the authors to suggest that the results may have been confounded by unknown physical activity or dietary factors. Various other studies have, however, demonstrated the beneficial effects of cocoa (especially in the form of cocoa-rich dark chocolate) on blood pressure and arterial function.

A Chocolate a Day . . .

Another benefit occurs when the cocoa flavanols inhibit platelet aggregation, the process that leads to clot formation. Recently, scientists at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that the blood of moderate chocolate eaters clotted less readily than that of people who were not eating chocolate (the effect was similar to that of a baby aspirin, but to a much lesser degree), and their urine contained lower levels of thromboxane B2, a waste product from platelet activity.2

The researchers surmised that a small amount of dark chocolate daily might reduce the risk of death by heart attack in some people. They cautioned, however, that the high fat and sugar content of most cocoa products could override the potential benefits.

’Tis the Season for Chocolate

An anonymous wag remarked, “There is good sex and there is bad sex, but chocolate is always chocolate.” Perhaps, but chocolate has not always been seen in a favorable light. For too long, the pendulum of medical opinion has swung to the dark side: too much saturated fat, too much sugar, too many calories—all true, alas. Now, however, the pendulum is swinging to the bright side with our growing understanding of the benefits of flavanols and other polyphenols. Best of all is that it’s now possible to enjoy the benefits of these biochemical goodies without all the fat and sugar.

In her wonderfully charming and amusing book Chocolate: The Consuming Passion, the beloved greeting card illustrator Sandra Boynton wrote, “Research tells us that fourteen out of any ten individuals like chocolate.”3 But, she adds, “There always seems to be someone looking over your shoulder, just waiting for an opportunity to lecture on The Darker Side of Chocolate.” She counters with her own advice: “As with most fine things, chocolate has its season. There is a simple memory aid that you can use to determine whether it is the correct time to order chocolate dishes: Any month whose name contains the letter A, E, or U is the proper time for chocolate.”

References

  1. Buijsse B, Feskens EJM, Kok FJ, Kromhout D. Cocoa intake, blood pressure, and cardiovascular mortality: the Zutphen Elderly Study. Arch Intern Med 2006;166:411-7.
  2. Anon. Daily chocolate cuts heart attack risk: eating a little a day can help cut risk of heart attack, researchers say. Reuters Health, March 1, 2007.
  3. Boynton S. Chocolate: The Consuming Passion. Workman Publishing, New York, 1982.


Dr. Richard P. Huemer received his M.D. from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in cancer immunology at CalTech. He has specialized in orthomolecular medicine for most of his career, has written and lectured extensively on alternative medicine, and has served on the editorial boards of professional journals. His published books include The Roots of Molecular Medicine: A Tribute to Linus Pauling and, with coauthor Jack Challem, The Natural Health Guide to Beating the Supergerms.

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