Back in the 1500s, chocolate wasn’t the stuff of Hershey’s, it was medicine. The Spanish colonists believed cocoa drinks could cure ailments from dirty teeth to excessive flatulence. But the Spanish also claimed cocoa could help with heart problems – and they were right.
A recent study that included UC Davis researchers shows that flavanols, found in cocoa, can dramatically lower blood pressure and heal damaged arteries. This improvement may be due to an increase in special cells in blood that help repair the endothelium – a.k.a. the inner lining of blood vessels.
The research, a collaboration between UC Davis, UC San Francisco, the Heinrich Heine University in Germany and candy company Mars Inc., measured the heart health of 16 patients with cardiovascular disease. The patients were randomly assigned high-flavanol and low-flavanol cocoa drinks for 30 days each. The low-flavanol drink served as the control and tasted exactly like the experimental drink.
After consuming the flavanol-rich drinks, the patients showed a 47 percent increase in endothelium function.
“If you have a high intake of flavanols, you have a low risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Hagen Schroeter, a researcher at UC Davis and director of food research in health and nutrition for Mars Inc.
But chocoholics shouldn’t rejoice just yet. Schroeter said the study is in its early days, and future research is needed to better understand the results. The scientists need to figure out why those special endothelium-repairing cells kick-in after flavanol consumption.
“We are still not sure if the improvement is due to new cells or better circulation of existing cells,” said Carl Keen, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at UC Davis.
Cocoa by itself is high in flavanols, but we don’t get those flavanols unadulterated. The chocolate in ice cream and candy bars mixes cocoa with unhealthy amounts of sugar and milk powder.
“Chocolate is not the answer,” Schroeter said.
The best way to maintain a flavanol-rich diet is to eat a diverse range of food. Grapes, tea, and apple-skins are all good sources, Keen said. Both researchers stressed that consuming flavanols doesn’t make up for other unhealthy behaviors – don’t think cocoa will balance out smoking or not exercising.
Though more research is required before flavanols are understood in the medical community, many traditional healers continue to believe in the power of cocoa. Louis Grivetti, professor emeritus in the department of nutrition at UC Davis and co-author of the book Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, has studied how modern cultures view cocoa.
“Traditional peoples through most of Central America still use chocolate for its presumed healing or healthful properties,” Grivetti said.
Grivetti said he has interviewed Mixtec Native Americans living in Madera, California, and found that in Mixtec culture, chocolate has spiritual power. He said families would give their children chocolate with breakfast to keep them safe during the day.
“Sometimes they used chocolate as a talisman,” Grivetti said.
As the field of nutritional medicine tackles the science behind flavanols, some wise claims about cocoa don’t require rigorous study.
“Eat chocolate because it tastes good,” Grivetti said.
MADELINE MCCURRY-SCHMIDT can be reached at email@example.com.