- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

From combined dispatches

Leave it to the Dutch, known for their luscious candy, to demonstrate the benefits of chocolate. It might be good for you.

Men who consumed the most cocoa had a 50 percent lower risk of dying from disease compared with those who did not eat cocoa, researchers in the Netherlands said yesterday.

Cocoa is known to lower blood pressure, though previous studies have disagreed about whether it prevents heart disease over the long-term, particularly because it is contained in foods high in fat, sugar and calories.

The new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that it was not lower blood pressure that corresponded to the lower overall risk of death — although the biggest cocoa consumers did have lower blood pressure and fewer cases of fatal heart disease than non-cocoa eaters.

Instead, the report credited antioxidants and flavonols found in cocoa with boosting the functioning of cells that line blood vessels and for reducing the risks from cholesterol and other chemicals that can cause heart attacks, cancer and lung diseases.

Flavonols are a class of healthy flavonoids that are found in many vegetables, green tea and red wine.

“It’s way too early to make recommendations about whether people should eat more cocoa or chocolate,” said Brian Buijsse, a nutritional epidemiologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who co-authored the study.

Still, the Dutch study, supported by grants from the Netherlands Prevention Foundation, appears to be the largest so far to document a health effect for cocoa beans. And it confirms findings of smaller, shorter-term studies that also linked chocolate with lower blood pressure.

“This is a very important article providing epidemiological support for what many researchers have been observing in experimental models,” said Cesar Fraga of the University of California at Davis, who does similar research but was not involved in the new study.

The 15-year study of 470 men aged 65 to 84 in Zutphen, the Netherlands, found one-third did not eat any cocoa, while the median intake was 4.2 grams per day among the third who consumed the most cocoa — including cocoa drinks, chocolate bars and chocolate pudding.

From 1985 to 2000, 314 of the men died, and the biggest cocoa eaters were at half the risk of dying compared with men who did not eat it.

Candy companies have been responding to studies showing that chocolate has health benefits. McLean candy giant Mars is introducing its flavonol-rich Cocoa Via line of chocolate bars in stores nationwide. And Hershey’s has a new line of chocolates, the Extra Dark Assortment, promoting antioxidants’ health benefits.

Mr. Buijsse noted the men eating the most cocoa products were not heavier or bigger eaters than the men who ate less cocoa.

“Our study consisted of elderly men,” he said. “If you look at the other interventional studies, you see the same effects in men and women, younger people and older people. It may be the findings are generalizable to women, but you never know.”

But a U.S. doctor said a larger study needs to be done.

Said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York who did not participate in the research: “This study is not generalizable to the public because it was done in men over the age of 65 years.”

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