Two recent studies suggest compounds in natural cocoa have significant health-giving properties.

One study by Prof Norman K. Hollenberg from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, US was published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences.

Hollenberg spent years studying the effects of cocoa-drinking on the Kuna people in Panama. He suggests that epicatechin, a flavanol found in high levels in natural cocoa, should be classed as a vitamin and is as important as penicillin and anaesthesia in terms of its potential to impact public health.

Although only an observational study, Hollenberg’s results from his work with the Kuna has been described as “so impressive” by Daniel Fabricant, a nutrition expert, that it “may even warrant a rethink of how vitamins are defined”.

Hollenberg and colleagues used death certificates from 2000 to 2004 to look at causes of death between the Kuna who live on the San Blas islands and those on mainland Panama. The Kuna on the mainland do not drink the flavanol-rich cocoa.

They found that the risk of 4 of the 5 most common killer diseases: cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart failure, is reduced to less than 10% in the island-based Kuna people, who drink up to 40 cups of epicatechin-rich cocoa a week.

Fabricant is vice president for scientific affairs at the Natural Products Association. He suggests that: “the link between high epicatechin consumption and a decreased risk of killer disease is so striking, it should be investigated further. It may be that these diseases are the result of epicatechin deficiency.”

The other study, sponsored by Mars Incorporated and conducted in Germany, was published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology. It suggests that drinking cocoa rich in flavanols can reverse impairment in the functioning of blood vessels, such as that caused by atherosclerosis.

In this study the participants were male smokers – a group known to have problems with blood vessel function. The participants were given cocoa drinks made with different levels of flavanol: from 28 to 918 milligrams.

In each case, the optimal effect in the blood flow happened after two hours.

179 milligram of flavanols gave a 50 per cent improvement in blood vessel performance, which carried on increasing in proportion to flavanol increase.

The improvement in blood vessel function for the highest level of flavanol, 918 mg, was so great that it was equal to that found in a person with no known cardiovascular risk factors.

They followed this up with a seven day sustained trial, where participants were given three drinks a day, totalling 918 mg, and monitored their blood vessel performance at intervals over the day, and then for a week after they stopped taking the drink.

The researchers said that the blood vessel benefits from consuming the flavanol-rich cocoa for a week was comparable to “long-term drug therapy with statins”.

While the improved performance was sustained while they continued to drink the cocoa, after a week of not drinking it, the blood vessel performance returned to their previous levels.

Commercial cocoa production removes flavanols like epicatechin because they taste bitter. They can also be destroyed by many conventional cocoa and chocolate processing methods. Tea, wine, chocolate and some fruit and vegetable also contain epicatechin.

According to a statement that accompanies an announcement of the second study, Mars has patented methods of processing cocoa beans to keep the naturally occurring flavanols in the cocoa and chocolate.

The statement emphasizes that consumers should be aware that “contrary to repeated reports, the percent cacao or cocoa does not indicate cocoa flavanol content. Only careful handling of the cocoa can help to retain cocoa flavanol content.”

Nutrionists advise members of the public not to take this news as a reason to increase their consumption of chocolate and cocoa.

“Does Flavanol Intake Influence Mortality from Nitric Oxide-Dependent Processes? Ischemic Heart Disease, Stroke, Diabetes Mellitus, and Cancer in Panama.”
Vicente Bayard, Fermina Chamorro, Jorge Motta, Norman K. Hollenberg.
Int. J. Med. Sci. 2007, 4: 53-58.
Click here for Abstract.

“Sustained Increase in Flow-Mediated Dilation After Daily Intake of High-Flavanol Cocoa Drink Over 1 Week. “
Heiss, Christian; Finis, David; Kleinbongard, Petra; Hoffmann, Arne; Rassaf, Tienush; Kelm, Malte; Sies, Helmut.
Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology. 49(2):74-80, February 2007.
Click here for Abstract.

Click here for more information on Chocolate and Health (Mars Inc).

Written by: Catharine Paddock
Writer: Medical News Today