Just in time for the holidays: researchers from Spain report that the cocoa in chocolate may actually benefit the heart by reducing the inflammation that can cause cardiovascular disease. The findings are reported in the November 1, 2009 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Maria Monagas and her colleagues at the University of Barcelona studied the effect of cocoa on 42 patients (average age: 69.7 years) who were already at high risk of heart disease, due to family history, obesity, high “bad” cholesterol, low “good” cholesterol, high blood pressure, or smoking. The researchers had each participant consume 40 grams of cocoa powder (non−fat, sugar−free) in 500 milliliters of skim milk per day, or just skim milk alone, for four weeks.
Monagas and her team found that when participants consumed cocoa in skim milk, they had considerably fewer adhesion molecules in their blood than when they consumed the skim milk alone.
Inflammatory markers called adhesion molecules were measured before the study began and at its conclusion. These molecules are key culprits in cardiovascular disease because they cause white blood cells to attach to artery walls, leading to the formation of atherosclerotic plaques (otherwise known as “hardening” of the arteries), which in turn restricts blood flow.
The team suggests that it is the polyphenol compounds in cocoa that are responsible for this heart healthy effect. Polyphenols are compounds that have been shown to act as antioxidants, reduce inflammation, and lower risk for heart disease and cancer.
The authors write that “[t]hese results suggest that the intake of cocoa polyphenols may modulate inflammatory mediators in patients at high risk of cardiovascular disease. These antiinflammatory effects may contribute to the overall benefits of cocoa consumption against atherosclerosis.”
Aside from being found in cocoa, polyphenols are also present in many other foods, like fruits, veggies, olive oil, red wine, and nuts, to name just a few – which may be something to consider before one indulges too heavily in holiday candy.