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ConditionsDark Chocolate: Nice - and not at all naughty

Dark Chocolate: Nice - and not at all naughty

Imagine this: your doctor takes your blood pressure, finds it's a bit on the high side and, rather than reaching for the prescription pad, tells you to go to the candy store and binge on chocolate

Imagine this: your doctor takes your blood pressure, finds it's a bit on the high side and, rather than reaching for the prescription pad, tells you to go to the candy store and binge on chocolate. Ridiculous? Not according to Italian doctors, who recently tested the effects of chocolate on people with mildly elevated blood pressure. In their randomized clinical trial, they found that eating an entire 100-g bar of dark chocolate (but not white chocolate) every day dramatically reduced blood pressure (BP). Systolic BP plummeted by an average of 11.9 mmHg, and diastolic BP by 8.5 mmHg-making chocolate as effective as many of the high-blood-pressure drugs currently on the market (Hypertension, 2005; 46: 398-405).

Recently, doctors at the University of Cologne in Germany repeated the trial, this time using considerably smaller amounts of chocolate (just 6.3 g), but even this had measurable benefits. In this case, BP was reduced by almost 3 mmHg, a small-but nevertheless significant-effect. "On a population basis, we estimate that a 3-mmHg reduction in systolic BP would reduce the relative risk of stroke mortality by 8 per cent, of coronary artery disease mortality by 5 per cent, and of all-cause mortality by 4 per cent," reported lead author Dr Dirk Taubert (JAMA, 2007; 298: 49-60).

Black magic

How does chocolate work its magic in the body? Last November, doctors in Switzerland, the home of chocolate, reported the results of a battery of detailed tests on the effect of chocolate on 22 of their heart-transplant patients. Using high-tech imaging of the arteries, they found that eating chocolate caused their patients' blood vessels to dilate by nearly 10 per cent. What's more, the effect was almost immediate: vasodilation occurred within two hours. They also found that platelet adhesion-a measure of blood 'stickiness' or coagulation-was significantly reduced, thus helping to prevent blood clots. Finally, chocolate seemed to have strong antioxidant properties, as levels of free radicals in the blood were also substantially reduced (Circulation, 2007; 116: 2376-82).

These are just a few of the many studies that are now completely overturning the conventional medical view of chocolate-which, until recently, was condemned by nutritionists as being too high in both saturated fat and sugar for our own good. Today, chocolate is increasingly being recognized as one of the most potent 'functional foods' around. However, the research data are clear that there's only one type of chocolate that is health-promoting. It's the milk-free, low-sugar kind that is sold in the shops as 'plain', 'pure', 'cooking' or 'dark'-the chocolate most commonly used and consumed in continental Europe.

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