- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

Smokers have long favored a leisurely cigarette and a nice cup of coffee. However, they might consider a switch to cocoa.

The American College of Cardiology announced Wednesday that the innocuous stuff can boost the levels of nitric oxide in the blood of smokers and may reverse smoking-related impairment of blood vessel function.

Though the researchers downplayed the idea, the implications are that cocoa might protect smokers from the harmful effects of their habit, and even reverse the damage.

“Cocoa can significantly improve an important marker of cardiovascular health in a population with an established cardiovascular risk factor,” said cardiologist Dr. Malte Kelm, who conducted the study in conjunction with the University of California at San Francisco and Germany’s Heinrich-Heine University.

Dr. Kelm called his findings “exciting.”

It is the first study of its kind to pair smokers with the childhood favorite, though the researchers called it a “cocoa drink.”

They treated a dozen smokers in their early 30s with no known health problems to a dose of specially prepared cocoa. The dilation responses of the smokers’ blood vessels were measured afterward, as were the nitric oxide levels. Nitric oxide signals the inner linings of the vessels to dilate.

The cocoa increased dilation and nitric oxide levels. Should these be compromised by smoking, arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, follows.

It’s all in the “flavonols,” or antioxidant compounds in chocolate, which also enhance immune function, prevent blood cells from clumping and offer cancer protection.

The researchers say quitting smoking is the best way to reduce heart disease risk, adding that green and black tea, red wine, cherries, apples, grapes, raspberries and broad beans also are good flavonol sources.

Their findings are going over some familiar and popular turf among researchers and consumers alike. In the past five years, numerous studies have found health benefits in chocolate.

In the past few months, researchers at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center found that chocolate inhibited the division of breast cancer cells, while Tufts University revealed that a daily bit of chocolate may lower blood pressure by an average of 10 percent. The Imperial College London, meanwhile, determined that chocolate can slow a persistent cough.

Though physicians are cautious to position fat-heavy chocolate as a health food, the business sector has responded. The candy giant Mars introduced its flavonol-rich Cocoa Via line of chocolate bars on the Internet two years ago; the product will be in stores nationwide this week.

Hershey, which released a study of chocolate on Tuesday, has a new label promoting antioxidants’ health benefits. Its study, conducted with Cornell University, found that the most flavonols are in natural cocoa powder, followed by unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate and chocolate syrup.

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