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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chocolate and Health

Air Date: Week of

Research has been accumulating which suggests that chocolate might be put on the list of foods which are good for the heart. Living On Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Heart disease is America's number one killer. But it's also one of the most preventable diseases. Doctors tell us to exercise regularly and watch our weight. And over the years, scientists have suggested that foods like oat bran, olive oil, and red wine may promote healthy hearts. Now new research shows that chocolate might deserve to be on that list. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports.

(A milling crows)

WOMAN: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Cafe Fleuris. Are you going to be joining us for our chocolate buffet this afternoon?

GRABER: Cafe Fleuris in Boston's Meridien Hotel. This is a chocolate-lover's wildest fantasy: an all-you-can-eat chocolate buffet.

MAN: We have some white and dark chocolate cake. We have marble cake, truffle cake. And the last buffet, we have two of our specialties, chocolate ravioli and...

GRABER: In the corner, a cook sets a chocolate crepe ablaze in an orange flash of Grand Marnier.


GRABER: One of the most blissed-out people here is Zack Gold, a maddeningly thin 19-year-old. He proudly proclaims himself an unrepentant chocoholic.

(To Gold) How would you define a chocoholic?

GOLD: I cannot eat enough chocolate, and I'll eat it 24 hours a day.

GRABER: Well, Zack, you can now feel a little bit better about that obsession. Research has been accumulating that cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, may actually be heart-healthy. In moderation, of course. It shouldn't be all that surprising, really. Cocoa beans come from a tree, and many of our pharmaceutical drugs do come from plants. In fact, the Olmec and Aztec Indians called cocoa the food of the gods and drank a cocoa beverage valued for its health benefits. Spanish missionary Jose de Acosta wrote of the strange beverage he encountered in sixteenth-century Peru.

(South American music up and under)

READER: Loathsome to such as are not acquainted it, having a scum or froth that's very unpleasant to taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians. They say they make diverse sorts of it, and put therein very much of that chili. Yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach.

GRABER: Today, nobody's saying cocoa is good for your stomach, but modern science may actually be vindicating the use of cocoa for your health. Much of the preliminary research has come from what is probably the most advanced chocolate lab in the country: the M&M Mars factory in Hackettstown, New Jersey.

(Bird song)

GRABER: Outside the sprawling beige building, a 20-foot-tall balloon in the shape of a bright yellow M&M waves to visitors. In the lobby, stuffed M&Ms relax on the chairs, their white arms draped over the sides. The sweet smell of chocolate hangs in the air.

SCHMITZ: Hi, I'm Dr. Harold Schmitz.

GRABER: Dr. Harold Schmitz is the preeminent chocolate chemist at Mars. Like everyone here, he wears a white lab coat with a little M&M logo. Dr. Schmitz says he's discovered that cocoa is a very strong anti-oxidant. That means it can do battle with the dangerous free radicals that roam our bloodstream.

SCHMITZ: The free radical is sort of the drunken driver out there on Interstate 80, and it can run into things and damage them. And that's what a free radical does. In the context of health, a free radical could damage your vascular system, or your heart potentially. And so, what anti-oxidants are able to do is, essentially, arrest the free radical or arrest the drunken driver, and prevent that deleterious reaction from happening inside your heart or inside your vascular system.

(Lab fans)

GRABER: We are now in the epicenter of U.S. cocoa research. Here in this lab, the beans are freeze-dried with liquid nitrogen.


GRABER: And ground up. The remaining powder is mixed with a solvent. A robotic arm lifts small vials of the liquid and injects it into an analyzer, where the various compounds are separated out for further study. Scientists found that the anti-oxidants in chocolate, called polyphenols, prevent a type of cholesterol from clogging blood vessels. The Mars team also looked at cocoa's ability to reduce the clumping of blood platelets.

SCHMITZ: And what we wanted to understand was, could these polyphenols in chocolate and cocoa prevent the activation of platelets, much like aspirin does? So we wanted to see that in the test tube, if that could work. And in fact, it did work.

GRABER: Finally, the team discovered that these polyphenols actually promote the relaxation of blood vessels, again helping blood flow freely. But all this happened in a test tube. Would these benefits stand up to human testing? Dr. Schmitz teamed up with scientists at the University of California at Davis to test cocoa's effects on people.

SCHMITZ: To see the results we saw, it's sort of one of those that knocks your socks off.

GRABER: Researchers fed a small group of subjects Mars Dove dark chocolate bars. They fed another group chocolate that had the anti-oxidants removed. Scientists hoped to see the polyphenols appear in the blood of the group that ate the Dove dark. But they ended up seeing much more than that. Again, Dr. Schmitz.

SCHMITZ: And what we were able to observe was that, without a doubt, the subjects that consumed the Dove dark bar, we were able to see enhanced anti-oxidant activity. And so that's where we've gotten very excited.

GRABER: They saw a reduction in the clumping of platelets, as well as proof of short-term blood vessel relaxation. But now, a reality check. How this preliminary research will translate into long-term benefits is not clear. And there's no conclusive data about which brands of chocolate process their cocoa in a way that retains the anti-oxidants.

SCHMITZ: We all know that if you steam a vegetable, it will tend to have a higher nutrient content than if you stew the vegetable. Same general principle, here. You need to take care of those nutrients, and take care of the bean.

GRABER: And even if chocolate turns out to be wonderful for our hearts, there certainly can be problems when it hits our waistlines.

(Hersheys jingle plays)

GRABER: Just a two-and-a-half hour drive from the Mars lab, no one's talking calories or anti-oxidants. This is the Hershey's visitor center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Among its many attractions, a mini-tropical rainforest, complete with a small waterfall.

(Water flows)

GRABER: There's one tree here, growing off to the side, that all the visitors want to see. It's a cocoa tree, 15 feet tall, hidden in the shade of the larger trees. It's actually not such an imposing figure, considering the passion its beans have inspired. An employee points up at a small, pale green growth sprouting off its trunk.

WOMAN: Straight up there, move in here...

GRABER: It's barely visible now, but it will grow into a gnarled, foot-long, yellow-green pod filled with slimy, melon-like pulp that surrounds its cargo, the cocoa beans. These beans are subjects of continuing research. Scientists at Mars and at several universities around the country say their next step will be long-term human studies, testing if feeding chocolate has healthy effects over the long haul. One thing's for sure: If it turns out that a small amount of chocolate, consumed regularly, is good for our hearts, scientists certainly won't have a tough time convincing the American public to give it a try. For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber.

KNOY: And by the way, Cynthia says she gained three, maybe four pounds, producing that story.



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