Chocolate Benefits: Research Suggests Sweet Can Help Blood Pressure, Cognition

Great News For Chocolate Lovers

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

Chocolate lovers, rejoice!

Two studies published this week indicate that the delectable treat not only may help reduce blood pressure, but also can improve cognitive function.

Local chocolate makers and confectioners are not surprised.

"There has been a lot of research on the benefits of chocolate, especially higher-percentage chocolate," said Michael Recchiuti, co-owner and chocolatier of San Francisco's Recchiuti Confections, referring to darker, more concentrated chocolates.

In the first study, researchers in Australia took a look at all of the research conducted on chocolate and blood pressure and found that there is a definite, albeit slight, decrease in blood pressure when people start consuming chocolate.

Altogether, they reviewed data on 856 people involved in 20 trials that lasted anywhere from two to eight weeks. One lasted 18 weeks. On average, daily intake of the product reduced blood pressure by 2 to 3 mm Hg, or millimeters of mercury - the unit used to measure blood pressure. The effects generally were seen within two weeks of starting the diet.

"Although we don't yet have evidence for any sustained decrease in blood pressure, the small reduction we saw over the short term might complement other treatment options and might contribute to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease," said Karin Ried of the National Institute of Integrative Medicine in Melbourne, Australia, the report's lead author.

The research appeared in the journal The Cochrane Collaboration [PDF].

Ried and her colleagues say the rich concentration of flavanols, a group of chemicals, in chocolate is likely providing the health benefits observed. Other foods that have flavanols include apricots, apples, grapes, red wine and tea leaves.

But chocolate has the highest concentration of flavanols, which is what makes it so exceptional, said Giovambattista Desideri, a researcher at Italy's University of L'Aquila.

He said several lines of clinical and experimental evidence show that flavonoid-rich foods, such as dark chocolate, "are effective in maintaining cardiovascular function and health and are associated with better cognitive function in elderly subjects."

He wanted to test the effect on cognitive function. His study appears in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension.

So he and his colleagues rounded up a group of 90 seniors who had been referred to the University of L'Aquila's geriatric division for mild cognitive impairment.

The researchers then split the group into three more groups. One group received a high concentration of flavonoids every day for eight weeks, another received intermediate amounts and the third group, just a little. The researchers then had the groups perform mental tests, such as mazes and word recollection.

Subjects in the highest and intermediate groups not only improved over the study period, but far outpaced their low-flavonoid co-testers.

For instance, in one test called the trail making test, the high-flavonoid group completed the exercise in an average of about 38 seconds. The low-flavonoid group took, on average, about 104 seconds to do the same thing.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first dietary intervention study examining neurocognitive performance in response to cocoa flavanols," Desideri said.

"As people live longer," he said, "the burden of cognitive impairment in society becomes increasingly important."

He said consuming cocoa "as part of a calorie-controlled and nutritionally balanced diet may represent an interesting and innovative strategy to maintain cardiovascular and brain health."

Recchiuti, of Recchiuti Confections, had his own advice.

"My recommendation is to practice moderation," he said. "What I've experienced in the past when studies have been released regarding the positive health benefits of daily chocolate consumption is people have a tendency to go a little overboard."

Susanne Rust is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.

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