Chocolate: Mixed Opinions on Flavanols

A large-scale study involving 18,000 people is being done on whether or not high amounts of flavanols, a chemical found in dark chocolate, has a big impact on health: namely, heart health. A simultaneous study is being conducted to see if multivitamins reduce the risk of cancer. Dr. JoAnne Manson at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (affiliated with Harvard) in Boston, is co-leading the study with Howard Sesso, also at Brigham, and others from Seattle’s Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center.

Past research has shown heart benefits to eating dark chocolate. A very recent study, its findings released last month, concurs on this point. Professor Diederik Esser of the Netherlands published the study in an academic journal, FASEB. Participants included 44 overweight men between the ages of 45 and 70 who would be separated into two groups. Half the group ate 70 grams of regular dark chocolate every day, while the other group ate a sort of “fortified” version, bars that had been infused with extra flavanols, thought to be the key to the heart benefits of this delicious foodstuff.

The study found that there is a definitive reduction in participants’ risk of atherosclerosis of the heart, where white blood cells build up within the heart’s arteries, hardening them. This thickening and hardening of the arteries can reportedly be slowed and even improved by eating dark chocolate, which seems to reduce the chances of white blood cells adhering to blood vessel walls and also restores flexibility of the arteries.

While the study found, across the board, this beneficial result, it did not find any extra heart-health benefit to those participants who had higher level of flavanols. A sensory difference was noted here, namely, participants’ appreciation and motivation to eat the treat, but that does not subtract from the enjoyment the other group experienced eating the regular dark chocolate. Overall, Dr. Esser stated unequivocally that his test results illustrate “increasing flavanol content has no added benefit on vascular health.” Both chocolates, which contained the same amount of cocoa, had the same results for heart-health, according to Esser.

JoAnne Manson and her colleagues perhaps have mixed opinions on this, or still have reason to want to investigate the positive associations on heart health with a high-flavanol-content pill. The control group will be given a placebo or “dummy” pill, while another will be given a sort of supercharged flavanol pill. Manson makes clear that one would be unable to get the amount of flavanols contained in these pills by eating anywhere near a normal amount of chocolate. A clear benefit of the pills, too, is that they will contain no sugar or saturated fat; they will only contain flavanols.

Mars, Inc., makers of M & Ms, Snickers and others, are sponsoring the study in cooperation with The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Researchers want to prove, or rule out, that it is flavanols specifically that reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Previous, smaller studies have looked at flavanols and heart health, as well as cholesterol and blood-pressure levels, and how flavanol affects the body’s use of insulin.

Part of this study will be on whether or not vitamins reduce the risk of cancer. This test will be done on a separate group of people from the flavanol/flavanol placebo group. In the cancer/vitamin study, there will also be a placebo group. Similar studies have been done in the past, but one of the main ones involved middle-aged men in good health. This study will involve a much broader representation of people.

Whether or not flavanols are the thing in chocolate that enhance or improve heart health, and therefore whether or not there is a benefit to investing money on the extraction of flavanols from chocolate to make these high-concentration pills, it seems researchers do agree that dark chocolate in its natural form itself has clear benefits. Other studies show chocolate can help prevent a decline in memory and may also help with concentration.

By Julie Mahfood

Follow Julie Mahfood on Twitter @Julie11153717


Washington Post
Medical News Today

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