The Benefits Of Chocolate
By Jon Marino, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON - Rather than using those dark delights to win the heart of another on Valentine's Day, chocolate lovers might want to take that beribboned box home to improve their own.
Experts gathered today at the National Academy of Sciences to discuss the cocoa-based confection, which contains chemicals, called flavanols, that have been shown to improve blood flow and reduce blood pressure.
The 2004 Cocoa Symposium was sponsored by UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services and Mars Inc., the candy manufacturer. The experts also examined ways to prevent disease in cacao plants, which produce the seeds that make chocolate and cocoa, and to encourage the cultivation of the plants as a solution for depleting tropical vegetation.
The potential health effects of flavanols were discovered two years ago, when studies of blood vessel function compared individuals who ate Dove dark chocolate - which has high levels of the chemicals - to those who ate chocolate with a lower amount of flavanols.
Mars, Dove's manufacturer, used that research as the basis for CocoaVia, a low-fat, flavanol-rich snack that is being test marketed and is available only online. An 80-calorie bar, which contains 100 mg of flavanols, is the industry's first step toward creating a truly healthy chocolate, Harold Schmitz, director of science at Mars, told the conference.
While recognizing the potential health benefits of chocolate, scientists also have noted that most commercially produced chocolate contains high levels of fats and sugars - which could negate the beneficial effects.
"Most of the chocolate currently available is delightful and delicious, but it's not a health food," said Norman Hollenberg, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "But it's imminent, it's coming," he said of flavanol-enriched chocolates.
Ten years of international research, dozens of reviews in scientific journals and millions of dollars - no precise amount was given - have shown that through proper growing, fermenting, roasting and processing, healthy chocolate can be distilled, Schmitz said. Because Mars is privately held, he said, it can do research that investors in a publicly traded company might consider wasteful.
In addition to chocolate, flavanols are found in apples and other plant-based products such as wine and green tea.
The scientists also examined diseases in cocoa plants, which cost the industry up to $1 billion annually. Molecular modification, said Raymond J. Schnell, supervisory research geneticist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has the potential to make cocoa plants more resistant to disease. Naturally occurring fungi can also be protective, he said.
Additionally, research conducted through a public/private partnership including UC Davis, Harvard University and the World Bank has shown that small family farmers in tropical regions can benefit from growing cacao while replenishing rain forests. Central and South American nations have most of the world's cacao production, but African and southeast Asian countries contribute as well.
"The goal is to get out of poverty, and to do so in a way that is environmentally benign," said James Bond, a World Bank official.
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