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Chocolate News You Can Use

May 6, 2011 Written by JP       [Font too small?]

At this years Natural Products Expo West, a new line of cocoa-based supplements received a great deal of attention. This is the latest example of a renewed sense of excitement surrounding the health potential of Theobroma cacao extracts and foods. However, not everyone is ready to embrace chocolate as a health food. Some health authorities are hesitant about giving their seal of approval, citing concerns ranging from increased cardiovascular risk to obesity. Who are we to believe? Should we place our faith in supplement manufacturers who suggest a broad array of health benefits or the skeptics that still consider chocolate merely candy?

Whenever you don’t know who to trust in medicine or otherwise, try to examine the evidence upon which the varied assertions are based. In the case of chocolate, I know better than to blindly trust supplement companies that are constantly looking for new and exciting products to develop. At the same time, I’ve heard and read too many nutritionists who disregard genuinely healthy foods and supplements offhandedly for whatever reasons – bias, ignorance, etc. That’s why it’s vital to develop good detective skills of your own and seek out a “brain trust” of people who are in the know who can help you get at the truth.

At the core of cocoa’s current revival are recent studies showing that it benefits the circulatory system. A study set to appear in the June 2011 issue of the journal Physiology & Behavior reports that eating dark chocolate daily improves both cognitive and visual performance. The well designed study involving 30 healthy adults provided either dark chocolate containing 720 mg of cocoa antioxidants (flavanols) or white chocolate (flavanol-free) on separate occasions. The benefits noted by the authors were attributed to increased cerebral and retinal blood flow during the dark chocolate phase of the trial. The way by which cocoa flavanols support healthier circulation may be by: 1) improving endothelial function via the “maintenance of optimal NO (nitric oxide) levels”; 2) inhibiting the activity of ACE or angiotensin-converting enzyme and; 3) protecting against free radical damage in the cardiovascular system. The observations are particularly intriguing when you consider that synthetic ACE inhibitors are typically used to treat congestive heart failure and/or high blood pressure. (1,2,3)

Cholesterol lowering medications are hallmark treatments for the prevention and onset of heart disease in conventional medical practice. Cocoa doesn’t have as profound an effect on lipid levels as statin drugs. However, T. cacao extracts may present a wider range of cardiovascular benefits with a decidedly lower risk of adverse reactions. Numerous trials published in prestigious journals confirm that daily consumption of dark chocolate elevates HDL (“good”) cholesterol while reducing LDL (“bad”) and oxidized cholesterol, improves glycemic control and insulin resistance, and reduces inflammatory markers. And now that researchers are beginning to unravel exactly how cocoa works its “magic”, via “increased sterol regulatory element binding proteins (SREBPs) and activated LDL receptors in HepG2 cells”, even some hard-nosed scientists may finally soften to the possibility that this traditional treat may actually possess medicinal properties. (4,5,6,7,8)

Now let’s move on to the obesity concern expressed by some medical experts. A few little known facts turn this preoccupation on its head. There are certain components of unrefined cocoa that likely discourage weight gain. Current presentations in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry and Planta Medica document a digestive enzyme inhibiting action of cocoa extracts. In practical terms, this means that antioxidants found in cocoa decrease the digestion of select food elements including carbohydrates and fats by suppressing the enzymes a-amylase and lipase. And whereas drugs that do the same may be unsafe, cocoa yields an unquestionably superior safety profile. Also, it’s now been determined that unprocessed cocoa supports the growth of friendly bacteria or probiotics in the digestive system. An emerging theory in the field of weight management is that a greater proportion of healthy bacteria tends to promote better “body weight equilibrium”. (9,10,11,12,13,14,15)

The Relative Antioxidant Activity of Cocoa

Source: Chemistry Central Journal 2011, 5:5 (link)

Two of the biggest reservations about the composition of cocoa have to do with its saturated fat content (mostly stearic acid) and its naturally occurring stimulants (caffeine and theobromine). A new study in the April 2011 edition of the journal Lipids compared the impact of supplementing the diets of 10 healthy women with cocoa butter and olive oil in a crossover fashion. The researchers conducting the trial examined the influence of the two fat sources on C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6), systemic inflammatory markers. Elevated CRP and/or IL-6 levels have been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Neither of the test fats were found to negatively influence inflammation when given in high dosages (1 gram/kg of body weight/day). It should also be noted that adding cocoa flavanols to meals high in fat tends to offset any fat related circulatory dysfunction. On the stimulant front, current experiments report that although cocoa extracts can reduce fatigue, their natural stimulant content does not increase blood pressure. Both of these observation are ultimately borne out when large scale studies investigate the relative incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD) based on chocolate consumption. The latest, appearing in the April 2011 issue of the journal Clinical Nutrition, determined that those eating 5 or more servings of chocolate a week were 57% less likely to present CHD than infrequent chocolate eaters. (16,17,18,19,20)

There are many different forms of chocolate on the market. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, some supplement companies now offer concentrated cocoa extracts. This isn’t a bad option. At least when you opt for encapsulated cocoa extracts, you can be reasonably certain that you’ll avoid the added sugar contained in most chocolate bars and drinks. But I personally prefer a much more basic source of chocolate – pure, organic cocoa powder. It’s more economical and it doesn’t strip the fiber content from the end product. Several promising studies in both animal and human subjects reveal that cocoa fiber supports regularity and tends to improve various risk markers associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Most refined chocolate snacks simply can’t be expected to afford that same level of protection. By using pure, non-alkaline (or non-Dutched) cocoa, you’ll get a fair share of antioxidants and a significant helping of dietary fiber. This makes for a truly heart healthy treat that shows no reason to cause any controversy whatsoever. (21,22,23,24,25)

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

Be well!

JP

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12 Comments & Updates to “Chocolate News You Can Use”

  1. Paul F. Says:

    Hi JP,

    I find this article as a strong reinforcement to my decision to adopt daily your Hot Chocolate 2010 recipe, which I love.

    I suggest to any new visitor to access that excellent recipe that gives a practical way to implement the benefits described here at a modest cost.

    Thank you for providing so much valuable information which I can put to good use and possibly eliminate some of my medications.

    Paul

  2. Brian Ellwood Says:

    Good stuff, JP…don’t let the haters take away our cocoa! I have found that using raw cocoa powder in certain dishes (mostly desserts) offsets the digestive dysfunction that chocolate bars often induce. Most chocolate bars, even dark chocolate, contain cocoa butter, as well as milk/whey products. I prefer to take raw cocoa powder, sweeten it with honey or agave nectar, and use the resulting mixture to make healthy almond butter fudge, turn a blueberry smoothie into a chocolate one, or to dust over certain dishes to add crucial antioxidants.

    What I love most about healthy eating is that there is always a way to make healthy foods taste as good or better as unhealthy ones, if you search hard enough!

  3. JP Says:

    I agree, Brian. My only quibble is the agave nectar and honey. I’ve found that certain stevia extracts do the trick in a more health conscious way.

    Be well!

    JP

  4. Brian Ellwood Says:

    That’s interesting..so in brief, what are the health disadvantages of honey and agave nectar? Is it the fact that they raise blood sugar levels?

  5. JP Says:

    Brian,

    Agave is the least attractive of the two options, IMO. They’re both high in fructose, even higher than HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) in many cases. Agave nectar/syrup has no redeeming studies (that I’m aware of) to support it’s use as a sweetener. Honey generally carries some degree of antioxidant activity along with the fructose – which tempers the impact to some extent. However I think that most people would do well in reducing fructose consumption in general – re: blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, fatty liver, etc. Eliminating or minimizing concentrated sources is a good start.

    http://www.healthyfellow.com/185/agave-danger/

    Be well!

    JP

  6. Brian Ellwood Says:

    Thanks, JP! I just learned a lot about agave and stevia from your other articles. I’ll go buy some stevia soon and try it out. Blackstrap molasses is also appealing. Good stuff!

  7. JP Says:

    Thank you so much, Paul! Your kind words and support are much appreciated! :)

    In case anyone is interested in the column you’re referring to, here’s a link:

    http://www.healthyfellow.com/710/hot-chocolate-2010/

    Be well!

    JP

  8. JP Says:

    Dark Chocolate Update:

    http://th.schattauer.de/en/contents/archive/issue/special/manuscript/23368.html

    Thromb Haemost. 2014 Sep 11;112(6).

    Effects of dark chocolate consumption on the prothrombotic response to acute psychosocial stress in healthy men.

    Flavanoid-rich dark chocolate consumption benefits cardiovascular health, but underlying mechanisms are elusive. We investigated the acute effect of dark chocolate on the reactivity of prothrombotic measures to psychosocial stress. Healthy men aged 20-50 years (mean ± SD: 35.7 ± 8.8) were assigned to a single serving of either 50 g of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate (n=31) or 50 g of optically identical flavonoid-free placebo chocolate (n=34). Two hours after chocolate consumption, both groups underwent an acute standardised psychosocial stress task combining public speaking and mental arithmetic. We determined plasma levels of four stress-responsive prothrombotic measures (i. e., fibrinogen, clotting factor VIII activity, von Willebrand Factor antigen, fibrin D-dimer) prior to chocolate consumption, immediately before and after stress, and at 10 minutes and 20 minutes after stress cessation. We also measured the flavonoid epicatechin, and the catecholamines epinephrine and norepinephrine in plasma. The dark chocolate group showed a significantly attenuated stress reactivity of the hypercoagulability marker D-dimer (F=3.87, p=.017) relative to the placebo chocolate group. Moreover, the blunted D-dimer stress reactivity related to higher plasma levels of the flavonoid epicatechin assessed before stress (F=3.32, p = .031) but not to stress-induced changes in catecholamines (p’s=.35). There were no significant group differences in the other coagulation measures (p’s≥.87). Adjustments for covariates did not alter these findings. In conclusion, our findings indicate that a single consumption of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate blunted the acute prothrombotic response to psychosocial stress, thereby perhaps mitigating the risk of acute coronary syndromes triggered by emotional stress.

    Be well!

    JP

  9. JP Says:

    Update: Enjoying dark chocolate judiciously can improve the health of overweight individuals …

    http://www.jnutbio.com/article/S0955-2863%2815%2900032-7/abstract

    Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry – February 25, 2015

    Natural cocoa consumption: Potential to reduce atherogenic factors?

    Short-term consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa has been demonstrated to improve various facets of vascular health. The purpose of the present study was to determine the effect of 4 weeks of natural cocoa consumption on selected cardiovascular disease (CVD) biomarkers in young (19–35 years) women of differing body mass indices (BMI; normal, overweight or obese). Subjects (n=24) consumed a natural cocoa-containing product (12.7 g natural cocoa, 148 kcal/serving) or an isocaloric cocoa-free placebo daily for 4 weeks in a random, double-blind manner with a 2-week washout period between treatment arms. Fasted (>8-h) blood samples were collected before and after each 4-week period. Serum was analyzed to determine lipid profile (chemistry analyzer) and CVD biomarkers (26 biomarkers). EDTA-treated blood was used to assess monocytes (CD14, CD16, v11b and CD62L), while citrate-treated blood was used to measure changes in endothelial microparticles (EMPs; CD42a−/45−/144+) by flow cytometry. Natural cocoa consumption resulted in a significant decrease in haptoglobin (P=.034), EMP concentration (P=.017) and monocyte CD62L (P=.047) in obese compared to overweight and normal-weight subjects. Natural cocoa consumption regardless of BMI group was associated with an 18% increase in high-density lipoprotein (P=.020) and a 60% decrease in EMPs (P=.047). Also, obese subjects experienced a 21% decrease in haptoglobin (P=.034) and a 24% decrease in monocyte CD62L expression in (P=.047) following 4 weeks of natural cocoa consumption. Collectively, these findings indicate that acute natural cocoa consumption was associated with decreased obesity-related disease risk. More research is needed to assess the stability of the observed short-term changes.

    Be well!

    JP

  10. JP Says:

    Updated 11/29/16:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5115689/

    Clin Interv Aging. 2016 Nov 14;11:1645-1652.

    Habitual cocoa intake reduces arterial stiffness in postmenopausal women regardless of intake frequency: a randomized parallel-group study.

    Arterial stiffness is substantially higher in postmenopausal than in premenopausal women. Daily cocoa intake has been shown to reduce central arterial stiffness in health adults, regardless of age; however, the effect of cocoa-intake frequency on arterial stiffness in postmenopausal women remains unclear. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of cocoa-intake frequency on arterial stiffness in postmenopausal women. A total of 26 postmenopausal women (mean age ± standard deviation 64±12 years) were randomly assigned to two groups with different cocoa-intake frequencies: one group ingested 17 g of cocoa once daily except on Sundays (every-day group, n=13), and the other ingested 17 g of cocoa twice daily every other day (every-other-day group, n=13). These intake regimens were maintained in both groups for 12 weeks. Carotid-femoral pulse-wave velocity and femoral-ankle pulse-wave velocity were measured in both groups at baseline and again at the end of the 12-week study period. Compared to baseline, both pulse-wave velocities had significantly decreased after the 12-week study period in both groups (P<0.05). However, no significant difference in degree of change was observed between the two groups. Although this study did not include a sedentary control group, these results suggest that regardless of frequency, habitual cocoa intake reduces central and peripheral arterial stiffness in postmenopausal women.

    Be well!

    JP

  11. JP Says:

    Updated 11/07/17:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29095007

    Nutr Hosp. 2017 Jul 28;34(4):841-846.

    [Influence of habitual chocolate consumption over the Mini-Mental State Examination in Spanish older adults].

    BACKGROUND: There are associations described between dementia, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and foods with a high content of polyphenols.

    OBJECTIVE: To assess the infl uence of habitual chocolate consumption over the MMSE in Spanish older adults.

    METHODOLOGY: Cross-sectional study, using data of the follow-up of the Seniors-Study on Nutrition and Cardiovascular Risk in Spain (ENRICA) cohort. Habitual chocolate consumption in the last year was assessed with a computerized dietary history; differences between dark chocolate and milk chocolate were recorded. Chocolate intake was classified into the following categories: no consumption, < 10 g/day, and ≥ 10 g/day. Validated MMSE scores for Spain were obtained during an interview and different cutoff points were used to define ≤ 25, ≤ 24 and ≤ 23. Linear and logistic regression models were used to calculate adjusted beta coefficients and odds ratios (OR).

    RESULTS: Compared to non-consumers, participants with a habitual chocolate consumption of ≥ 10 g/d had a better MMSE score (adjusted beta coefficient and 95% confidence interval: 0.26 (0.02-0.50; p trend = 0.05); for dark chocolate, the results were also statistically significant (0.48 [0.18-0.78]; p trend < 0.001). Total chocolate consumption was not associated with higher likelihood of having MCI. However, dark chocolate consumption was associated with less likelihood of MCI (OR and 95%CI for MMSE ≤ 25: 0.39 [0.20-0.77]; for MMSE ≤ 24: 0.26 [0.10-0.67]; and for MMSE ≤ 23: 0.25 [0.07-0.82]).

    CONCLUSION: Our results suggest that habitual dark chocolate consumption might improve cognitive function among the older population.

    Be well!

    JP

  12. JP Says:

    Updated 03/12/19:

    https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/3/596/htm

    Nutrients 2019, 11(3), 596

    Increasing Chocolate’s Sugar Content Enhances Its Psychoactive Effects and Intake

    Chocolate elicits unique brain activity compared to other foods, activating similar brain regions and neurobiological substrates with potentially similar psychoactive effects as substances of abuse. We sought to determine the relationship between chocolate with varying combinations of its main constituents (sugar, cocoa, and fat) and its psychoactive effects. Participants consumed 5 g of a commercially available chocolate with increasing amounts of sugar (90% cocoa, 85% cocoa, 70% cocoa, and milk chocolates). After each chocolate sample, participants completed the Psychoactive Effects Questionnaire (PEQ). The PEQ consists of questions taken from the Morphine-Benzedrine Group (MBG), Morphine (M,) and Excitement (E) subscales of the Addiction Research Center Inventory. After all testing procedures, participants completed the Binge Eating Scale (BES) while left alone and allowed to eat as much as they wanted of each of the different chocolates. We found a measurable psychoactive dose–effect relationship with each incremental increase in the chocolate’s sugar content. The total number of positive responses and the number of positive responses on the E subscale began increasing after tasting the 90% cocoa chocolate, whereas the number of positive responses on the MBG and M subscales began increasing after tasting the 85% cocoa chocolate sample. We did not find a correlation between BES scores and the total amount of chocolate consumed or self-reported scores on the PEQ. These results suggest that each incremental increase in chocolate’s sugar content enhances its psychoactive effects. These results extend our understanding of chocolate’s appeal and unique ability to prompt an addictive-like eating response.

    Be well!

    JP

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