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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

Benefits of Chocolate, Part 1

Published December 2, 2015 9:36 AM by Lindsey Nolen

It’s officially the time of year when all types of treats begin to fill tables at holiday celebrations, office parties and family gatherings. While conventional wisdom holds that desserts can be detrimental to a person’s overall health, recent studies have reported some sweeter findings—perhaps justifying that extra piece of chocolate this holiday season.

Medical History
The medical uses of chocolate date back as early as 1900 B.C., when it was first consumed by pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica, such as the Olmec, and used as a tool for administering foul-tasting medicines. Initially mixed with spices, this form of chocolate was far from the sweet delicacy that is popular today. However, by the 16th century, a much sweeter form gained popularity in Europe. It later fell into question due to its assumed risks based on increased sugar intake.

According to data from Euro-Monitor, Americans will eat about $18 billion worth of chocolate in 2015—that is roughly 18% of the world's chocolate. Since so many people indulge in this sweet treat, much research has been conducted to identify the health effects of chocolate.

Cardiovascular Risk
Over the years, a number of studies have found that chocolate intake is correlated with a reduced risk of death by heart attack. High demand for methods to protect against cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, makes this correlation significant.

One study, published in 2015 in the journal Heart (http://heart.bmj.com/content/101/16/1279), examined the long-term effects of diet on human health and concluded that, in patients who ate 15 grams to 100 grams of chocolate a day, risk of heart disease dropped more than in patients who completely avoided consumption. Of the 25,000 study volunteers, more reported eating milk chocolate than dark chocolate, which has long been considered healthier. A primary reason why dark chocolate is regarded as healthier than milk chocolate is because it contains less milk and sugar and more flavonoid content.

“Research shows that organic [chocolate] has more nutritional value than conventional, and that milk chocolate does not provide the same benefits as dark chocolate. This is not only because of the low cacao content, but also because dairy in milk chocolate binds with the beneficial antioxidants,” explained Nichole Dandrea, MS, RD, owner of Nicobella Organics.

Chocolate is linked with reduced cardiovascular risk because it is full of flavonoid antioxidants, which improve function of the endothelium, or inner lining of the blood vessels. Chocolate can also improve arterial function, increasing high-density lipoprotein or “good” cholesterol and decreasing low-density protein or “bad” cholesterol (1).

Cognitive Benefits
Chocolate has also been linked with improved cognition. Research shows that cocoa consumption significantly improves self-reported mental fatigue and performance. It contains theobromine and caffeine, which confer the positive responses and positively influence mood and alertness (2).

People with mild cognitive impairment benefit from the health effects of chocolate as well. Although flavonoids may have direct effects on neurons and neurodegenerative brain processes, it is really chocolate’s ability to heighten insulin sensitivity—affecting blood sugar and ultimately brain function—that fosters optimal brain health.

Other micronutrients found in chocolate, known as polyphenols, have prompted the development of a cocoa extract as a natural remedy to promote optimal brain health. The cocoa polyphenols are believed to reduce the production and buildup of beta-amyloid and tau proteins that have been linked to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease (3).

“While the overall goal of many chocolate manufacturers is to try to identify the best way to have polyphenols maintained in the chain of production, the work we have been doing is trying to identify mechanisms through certain polyphenols from different sources, including grape and cacao, to promote resilience to psychological stress and cognitive degeneration or impairment,” said Giulio Maria Pasinetti, MD, PhD, a professor of neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, in an interview with ADVANCE. Pasinetti is also the director of biomedical training at the J.J. Peters Bronx VA Medical Center in New York.

Approximately 20% of people older than 70 experience mild cognitive impairment, and each year 5% of them will progress to dementia, according to the University of California’s Berkeley Wellness blog. If chocolate can help deter cognitive impairment, midlife and older adults may want to consider increasing their chocolate intake.

“Our work in the next few years hopes to provide the opportunity for the development of a biological compound to deliver polyphenols orally and to thereby exert beneficial effects on cognitive function,” Pasinetti said.

 

References:

1. 
http://www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-eating/nutrition/article/chocolate-brain

2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3672386/

3. http://www.j-alz.com/content/researchers-explore-cocoa-novel-dietary-source-prevention-cognitive-deterioration-alzheimer


posted by Lindsey Nolen

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