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Health

It's chocolate; it must be good

We latch on to any good health news about it. But, say experts, its powers aren't proved yet. Indulge in dark chocolate and moderation.

By LISA GREENE
Published February 28, 2006


[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Dark chocolate ganache adorns fruit at Celebration Cakes in Largo.

In the name of science, they ate bonbons.

And chocolate bars. M&Ms. Even chocolate pudding.

In the end, the research subjects who ate more chocolate had lower blood pressure and a lower risk of cardiac death than those who didn't, according to a study published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

But don't grab the Hershey bar just yet.

As tempting as it sounds, the study was fairly small, and even its authors say more research is needed. Besides, chocolate has bad friends.

"The problem is all the things people put chocolate with," said Dr. Gerald Fletcher, a preventive cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville and spokesman for the American Heart Association. "The chocolate cakes, the chocolate ice cream - they gain all this weight, which negates all the benefits."

But oh, how we want to believe. Even the smallest study - one much-cited effort three years ago enlisted just 13 volunteers - comes as welcome news. Candy giant Mars Inc. has introduced a new line of chocolate candy and snack bars, CocoaVia, that it touts as health food.

It could be true. Chocolate contains compounds called flavonoids that are a kind of antioxidant and that have been linked to heart benefits.

"I think it's highly suggestive that there's a beneficial effect," said Paula Bickford, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of South Florida. "More research can be done in the area, but I think there's enough evidence that if you want to include some chocolate in your diet, that's okay."

Bickford researches the health benefits of antioxidants, substances such as vitamins A, C and E. They're found in many fruits and vegetables and help protect cells from damage. The stuff Bickford is testing in rats is not nearly as appealing as chocolate. It's spirulina, a type of blue-green algae.

When it comes to chocolate, Bickford and Fletcher are split. She's a connoisseur who samples chocolates from around the world. He gave up dessert 20 years ago.

But both say moderation is key.

"It's kind of like alcohol," Fletcher said. "A little alcohol, and chocolate in moderation, are beneficial. Alcohol is more proven than chocolate. The chocolate data is not that well proven. The data is not that strong."

Both say that dark chocolate, which has more flavonoids and less sugar, probably is healthier.

"I would recommend that if you're going to go buy chocolate, that you go buy the chocolate that's 70 percent cocoa and higher," Bickford said.

In Monday's study, researchers followed 470 elderly Dutch men starting in 1985, interviewing them three times at five-year intervals to ask about their diet. Researchers found that two-thirds of them ate chocolate.

Dark chocolate and milk chocolate, Mars bars and Milky Ways. M&Ms, plain and peanut. Cookies and custards, puddings and even sandwich spreads.

Researchers divided the men into three groups, based on their cocoa consumption, and found that those who ate the most had blood pressure a few points lower than those who ate the least. By 2000, two-thirds of the men, ages 65 to 84 in 1985, had died. Researchers found that the men who ate the most chocolate had half the risk of dying from heart disease.

But this type of study has some inherent problems. The subjects chose their diet; researchers simply recorded it, rather than dividing people into groups at random. As the researchers themselves pointed out, that makes it easier for some other factor to influence the outcome.

Maybe, for example, the subjects ate chocolate because they were happier and had lower blood pressure for the same reason. The study also noted, as Bickford pointed out, that the chocolate lovers ate more nuts and seeds, foods that also may help heart health.

Such observational studies carry more weight when they follow thousands of people. And even then, they can be wrong. Three years ago, a controlled trial contradicted longstanding beliefs in the benefits of hormone therapy - beliefs based on large observational studies.

Still, it's chocolate. A little good health news melts in the mouth.

"It's probably healthy to have a little dark chocolate if you're lean and trim," Fletcher said. "The problem is America's waistline."

[Last modified March 2, 2006, 10:49:54]


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