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Chocolate now health food?

Americans have a strong Puritan ethic. They figure that if it hurts or tastes bad, it must be good for you. That may partially explain the earnest embrace of prohibitions in our quest for good health.

For decades, people in the U.S. have been told to cut back on fat and cholesterol. That translated into limitations on eggs, butter and treats like chocolate.

The French, on the other hand, are more interested in moderation as the path to good health. They never traded in butter for margarine or gave up on eggs. They drink wine with their meals and appreciate good chocolate. Their heart-attack statistics have always been lower than Americans'.

Now, nutrition experts are revising many of their rules. Eggs are no longer forbidden. Margarine with trans fats is no longer a better butter substitute. And chocolate is being recognized for its health benefits.

A team of nutrition experts from the Harvard School of Public Health recently reviewed the extensive research on chocolate and cocoa flavonoids (Journal of Nutrition, November 2011). These antioxidant plant compounds have many beneficial physiological effects on humans.

Researchers became interested in cocoa and its compounds after anthropologists reported about Caribbean people called the Kuna. On their native islands off the coast of Panama, the Kuna have admirably low blood pressure even into old age. They rarely experience heart attacks or strokes. Once they move to the Panamanian mainland, however, the Kuna are just as likely as other people to die of cardiovascular causes.

What makes the difference? Scientists considered stress and salt intake and concluded those were not to blame (Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology, Supplement 2, June 2006). Instead, the explanation lies in the five or more cups of flavonoid-rich cocoa that the island Kuna usually drink each day.

What the research shows is that the flavonoid compounds from cacao can lower systolic blood pressure and increase the flexibility of blood vessels. Cholesterol is affected favorably, with bad LDL cholesterol dropping and good HDL cholesterol rising. All these changes are modest but consistent. In addition, insulin resistance, which plays an important role in type 2 diabetes, is reduced.

Now, you might imagine that, given these results, nutrition nabobs would be encouraging us all to consume cacao flavonoids in cocoa or flavonoid-rich chocolate. Not so. When a new study on the benefits of these compounds is published, there usually is a cautionary commentary from a nutrition scientist warning that chocolate is high in calories and that eating it will make us fat.

The research shows, however, that people who consume chocolate or cocoa in a research environment do not gain weight. In addition, epidemiology reveals that people who eat modest amounts of chocolate regularly don't weigh more than people who deprive themselves (Archives of Internal Medicine, March 26, 2012).

Learn more about the health benefits of chocolate in "The People's Pharmacy Quick and Handy Home Remedies" (National Geographic). Dark chocolate and naturally processed cocoa are usually richer in the valuable flavonoids that provide health benefits.