|Source: Simon A. Eugster|
But why would something that contains sugar and isn't fruit be healthy? Scientists believe that the flavonoids in cacao beans, which are fermented, dried and roasted to make cocoa powder, are responsible. Flavonoids are also found in tea, red wine, blueberries, apples and cherries - one reason why they say "an apple a day keeps the doctor away". The flavonoids in cocoa have been shown to help lower high blood pressure, improve blood flow and protect against cellular damage. In a study of 21,000 adults in Norfolk, England, which spanned 11 years, it was found that 17.4% of those who did not eat chocolate developed or died of heart disease, but only 12% of those in the top tier of chocolate consumption suffered the same fate. The participants who ate chocolate may have had healthier lifestyles in general - those who did not had more inflammation in their arteries, more diabetes and had a higher average weight.
One mechanism behind this is the antioxidant properties of cocoa flavonoids, and studies have shown that blood cholesterol is less likely to form arterial plaque when protected by antioxidants. After four weeks of an intervention involving cocoa powder, volunteers with mildly elevated cholesterol experienced a small, but significant, reduction by 5% of their LDL ("bad" cholesterol) levels. In another study, people with normal cholesterol levels saw a 15% reduction in LDL after a few weeks of eating an amount of chocolate that equaled 168mg of flavanols. These flavonoids could also fight inflammation by affecting important pro-inflammatory enzymes, such as cyclo-oxygenase and lipo-oxygenase. When over 800 people who ate dark chocolate regularly were compared to over 1,300 who did not, those who ate around 20 grams of dark chocolate every three days had significantly less inflammation than volunteers who are more or no chocolate. Therefore, it may be best to eat chocolate in moderation, and the people who ate it every day could have also been more likely to have other vices. Other research has found that these substances in chocolate can even relieve high blood pressure, with a similar effect to your average anti-hypertensive drugs! Overall it looks like dark chocolate and cacao powder, which you can use to make your own desserts, may in fact be health foods, but of course, only in moderation.