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There is a lot of mysticism attached to chocolate. Over the centuries, cocoa has been touted as a romantic and health elixir. The Mayans also used cocoa as a form of money and buried aristocrats with it. It appears that they believed they “provided people with destruction and survival in the next life,” says Nat Blitter, ethnobotanist and criminalist.
Just as stories have evolved over a thousand years of history in food, so too has scientific interest in understanding how it influences our health. Cocoa contains many bioactive compounds called flavanols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In recent years, studies have shown that the flavanols in cocoa can help improve blood flow and lower blood pressure.
Back in 2018, a company that manufactures chocolate and cocoa products, Barry Callebaut AG Switzerland, asked the US Food and Drug Administration to allow the use of a health claim on labels, showing a link between the consumption of cocoa and flavanol-rich reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Now, with a detailed review of the study, the FDA has responded.
In early February, the agency gave the green light to specific, limited health use of products made with high-flavanol cocoa powder. However, the agency says that there is not enough evidence that it takes on regular chocolate needs, our type consumes the most. Maybe that’s because some of the more plausible research comes from studies of cocoa flavanol supplements, not candy.
For example, the Cosmos trial, which included more than 20,000 men and women, aged 60 and older. Study participants agreed to consume 500 milligrams of cocoa flavanols, in capsule form, for several days each year to test whether the risk of heart disease could be reduced. It was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, so participants did not know whether they were given cocoa flavanols or a placebo.
“I saw promising signs of cardiovascular disease events,” explains Dr. JoAnn Manson of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and one of the authors of the study. Overall, there was not a statistically significant reduction in heart attacks or strokes among the participants taking the cocoa supplements, but fewer people died from heart disease. “We saw a 27% reduction in cardiovascular disease deaths,” says Manson. A study in the Journal of the Society of Clinical Nutrition next summer, and researchers hope to replicate the findings with continued research.
Scientists have pinpointed a mechanism that helps explain how heat affects our cardiovascular systems. The bio-active flavanols in cocoa can produce more nitric oxide, the gas that causes our veins to open or dilate. “Vasodilation appears to be a mechanism to lower blood pressure and that appears to be a sign of a reduction in cardiovascular events,” Manson says.
But – bad news for chocoholics – she says the findings should not be interpreted as an invitation to eat more chocolate given the bars’ sugar, fat and calories. “We found in the Women’s Health Initiative that eating chocolate several times a week, just regular chocolate candy, caused weight gain,” Manson says. Being overweight is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
So where does that leave us public chocolate lovers?
Despite dozens of published studies evaluating the link between chocolate and health, the FDA’s assessment is that, as of now, the science is still inconclusive. It’s pretty clear that the compounds in cocoa are good for us, but we can’t get enough of them when we consume them with highly processed, sweetened candy condiments.
This is probably because the newly approved health claims are limited and confusing. Here is one example:Cocoa flavanols in high flavanol powder Cocoa may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, although the FDA has concluded that there is very limited scientific evidence for this claim..
“How is pain going to be interpreted” thaT?” nutrition scientist Christopher Gardner, a professor at Stanford University, says that a similar health claim is beneficial.
One of the challenges, he says, is that it’s almost impossible to do the kind of studies that could prove whether any amount of chocolate reduces heart disease. First, the scientists had to recruit thousands of people, half of whom agreed to eat chocolate every day for many years. The other half would have to agree to never eat chocolate. “Who would be the sign for that?” Cicero asks.
For now, when they ask him if chocolate is healthy, he answers: “For what?” If you’re deciding between jelly beans and dark chocolate, dark flavanols are better, he says. “The jelly beans are basically just sugar,” says Gardner. Take it as a true chocolate lover, which is good for slowing down and working out a little.
Some manufacturers have begun marketing chocolate that is higher in flavanols, even up to 200 mg per serving. The FDA says that to be able to claim safety, cocoa products must have at least 4% of naturally preserved cocoa flavanols. However, these snacks may taste more bitter than most people usually enjoy.
In Europe, the chocolate maker Barry Callebaut, the company that sued the FDA, has already been allowed to use the claim of dark chocolate health products claiming that cocoa flavanols have a positive impact on blood flow. The company calls the FDA’s action in the US “a major milestone” in the development of cocoa as an ingredient that can be mixed or added to a range of products. “This provides an opportunity to grow and increase better pro-you products by leveraging high-flavanol cocoa powder, especially in the (sports) drink and protein mix categories,” wrote Hugo Van Der Goes, vice president of Cocoa North America at Barry Callebaut, in a statement. Callebaut already sells cocoa powder, which the company says qualifies for a new health claim.
Some chocolate lovers may balk at the idea of cocoa-infused sports drinks. Nat Blitter, who operates Madre Chocolate in Hawaii, and does minimal processing on the easy, high on the easy, says that while some connoisseurs are concerned with the health benefits of chocolate, others are all about the taste. “Sometimes they want to feel like they’re a little guilty when they eat chocolate,” she says. He wants to help his customers get the most out of every bite by using all their senses when they eat chocolate. “Don’t taste it,” said Blitter. “Sniff it before you put it in your mouth.” And you don’t bite right away. “Put it on your tongue and see if you can taste all the flavors,” he said.
Like wine, chocolate can have many unique and interesting flavors, so the goal is to savor it.
“People need to have something fun and enjoy it,” Gardner says, and not get too hung up on the information, or claims against safety.
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