Chocolate, perhaps the world's favorite confection, contains chemicals like those in red wine and green tea that can help improve circulation, cut blood pressure and might produce other health benefits, according to researchers speaking Tuesday at the National Academy of Sciences.
The day-long session focused on the history, cultural impact, medical benefits and just plain good taste of cocoa, the plant that produces the raw material for chocolate.
Indeed, conference-goers got to taste a variety of drinking cocoas including a hot pepper-infused version drunk by ancient Central Americans - bitter stuff - and several sweet modern versions including one enhanced with the natural beneficial chemicals called flavonoids.
In the overview of Francisco X. Alarcon of the University of California, Davis, a poetic recollection of grandmother's advice:
"for the most
love and honey
just as for life"
The ancient Aztecs sang "I drink chocolate, it makes me happy, my heart rejoices," Alarcon told the session.
Maybe they weren't just speaking metaphorically.
Over the last decade or so researchers have come to see a relationship between consuming more flavonoids and lowering the death rate from heart disease, said Dr. Helmut Sies, chairman of the department of biochemistry at the University of Duesseldorf, Germany.
Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg of Harvard Medical School said he found cocoa was effective in lowering the blood pressure in his study of the isolated Kuna Indians who live on islands off the coast of Panama.
Despite a high salt diet, the Kuna have normal blood pressure, he explained, and they consume large quantities of locally grown cocoa which is high in flavonoids. When Kuna moved to a city and switched to commercial cocoas with fewer of the chemicals their blood pressure tended to rise, he noted.
Normal processing of cocoa reduces the amount of the flavonoids, Hollenberg noted.
Versions are being produced with the chemicals retained and, served at the conference, tasted slightly stronger than normal cocoa but still were enjoyable.
Hollenberg said flavonoids are protective antioxidants, and early research also indicates that cocoa with flavonoids can help increase blood flow in the brain and the extremities, which could prove beneficial to the elderly and diabetics. That research is in its early stages, he cautioned.
"We're well beyond the beginning of this, but we're nowhere near the end," said Hollenberg.
Potential health benefits from chocolate have also been reported in medical journals, although other scientists also note that chocolate tends to contain fats and sugar.
While presenters extolled the virtues of cocoa, the romance of fast-approaching Valentine's Day also was in mind.
"I hope we will not solve all the mystery; we need a little mystery in life," said Philippe Petithuguenin, head of cocoa research at CIRAD, a French organization specializing in the study of tropical agriculture.
Sponsors of the conference were the University of California, Davis; University of California, Santa Cruz; U.S. Department of Agriculture; National Institutes of Health; the Smithsonian Institution; and Mars Inc.
By Randolph E. Schmid