Chocolate, Chocolate, It's Good For Your Heart, Study Finds

Chocolate, Chocolate, It's Good For Your Heart, Study Finds

5:58pm Jun 23, 2015
There's a growing body of evidence suggesting that compounds found in cocoa beans, called polyphenols, may help protect against heart disease.
There's a growing body of evidence suggesting that compounds found in cocoa beans, called polyphenols, may help protect against heart disease.
Philippe Huguen / AFP/Getty Images

Here's a sweet notion: Eat a little chocolate each day and you could be doing your heart a favor.

A new study published in the journal Heart found that habitual chocolate eaters had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and strokes compared to people who didn't eat chocolate.

So, what is it about chocolate that could possibly lead to such a benefit? Well, when you strip out the sugar and milk that's added to chocolate, you're left with the cocoa bean. And it's the compounds in the cocoa that researchers are most interested in.

The study is part of a growing body of evidence that suggests the bioactive plant compounds found in cocoa beans, called polyphenols, may help protect against heart disease.

"What we're learning is that polyphenols ... seem to improve the health of our blood vessels," says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

As part of the new study, researchers tracked about 20,000 adults in England for some 12 years. Participants filled out food-frequency questionnaires. And the researchers gauged chocolate consumption from these surveys.

How much better did the chocolate eaters fare when it came to staving off heart disease? As Howard LeWine of the Harvard Health Blog calculates: "Among those in the top tier of chocolate consumption, 12 percent developed or died of cardiovascular disease during the study, compared to 17.4 percent of those who didn't eat chocolate."

The reduction in risk is surprising, according to study author Phyo Myint of the University of Aberdeen. As part of the analysis, the chocolate eaters were broken down into groups based on how much they ate — from the heaviest consumers of chocolate to those who ate the least. "The group with the greatest benefit generally ate 16 to 100 grams per day," Myint writes in an email. To put that into perspective, a standard-size Hershey bar has 43 grams.

Now, the rub with this kind of study is that the link between chocolate and health is just an association. "It doesn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship between chocolate and reduced risk of heart disease and stroke," says JoAnn Manson, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Manson and a group of other researchers are about to launch a large-scale clinical trial of the polyphenols — those bioactive compounds — in the cocoa bean.

"We'll be testing them in a capsule form," Manson says. "So, [none of] the sugar, fat and calories" that you get from a candy bar.

Now, if you're like me and don't like the idea of chocolate pill, keep savoring chocolate the old-fashioned way.

"Chocolate can be part of a healthy diet," Manson says. But don't overdo it. And stay tuned, Manson says, for the findings of new research intented to unravel this connection between cocoa and our health.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's news we love delivering to you this morning. There is more evidence that some chocolate could be good for you. A paper published in the journal Heart this week finds there is indeed an association between cocoa and good health. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Lots of people think of chocolate as a sweet treat. But if you strip it down, what makes that flavorful, chocolaty essence is the cocoa bean. And researchers say it's compounds in the cocoa that may promote good health.

DARIUSH MOZAFFARIAN: What we're learning is that cocoa has polyphenols in it, which seem to improve the health of our blood vessels. That could really be important for cardiovascular disease.

AUBREY: That's Dariush Mozaffarian of Tufts University. The latest evidence comes from a long-term study of about 20,000 adults in England. Researchers found that people who were in the habit of eating chocolate daily had a slightly lower risk of stroke and a lower risk of heart disease. Now, Mozaffarian says the rub with this finding is that it does not prove a cause-and-effect between eating chocolate and healthy hearts. It's possible that the chocolate eaters in this study also had other good habits that could explain why they fared better.

MOZAFFARIAN: So we have to be cautious in interpreting the findings. But I think we can say that there's good evidence that cocoa may improve cardiovascular health.

AUBREY: Notice, he says cocoa not chocolate bars, which tend to be packed with sugar. JoAnn Manson of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston is about to start a new study that isolates just the beneficial plant compounds from cocoa.

JOANN MANSON: We would be testing them in a capsule form, so there wouldn't be the sugar, saturated fat and calories.

AUBREY: Now, if you're like me and you don't want your chocolate in a pill, well, keep eating it the old-fashioned way.

MANSON: Chocolate can be part of a healthful diet.

AUBREY: But Manson says, don't overdo it. The chocolate eaters in this study averaged less than a candy bar per day. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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