Science - March 2, 2006

Chocolate egg instead of bypass

‘A largish chocolate egg,’ says Professor Daan Kromhout of the sub-department of Human Nutrition. ‘According to our study, that is sufficient cacao to halve the chance of fatal heart and circulatory disease. That’s a good result.’

In addition to being professor and vice-chair of the Health Council of the Netherlands, Kromhout is supervisor of Brian Buysse, a PhD researcher, author of an article published in the Archives of Internal Medicine on 27 February. It concerns an epidemiological study, based on data collected from nine hundred elderly Dutch men, who were monitored between 1985 and 2000.

Anthropologists have previously found anecdotal evidence of the health-promoting effect of cacao. The Kuna Indians in Panama, who drink a beverage made from local cacao a couple of times a day, have remarkably low death-rates from heart and circulatory diseases.

However, the research done by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, RIVM, and Wageningen University is the first epidemiological study that demonstrates the effect. The study was inspired by an article published in 2003 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

‘The researchers gave test subjects one hundred grams of plain chocolate and then looked at what happened to their blood vessels,’ explains Kromhout. ‘They noticed that blood pressure went down and that the muscles in the blood vessel walls became more supple. A desirable development: flexible artery walls react better to exertion and are less susceptible to arteriosclerosis and thrombosis.’

One hundred grams of chocolate contains about five hundred kilocalories, though. That is a large amount, especially in a society where obesity is an increasing problem. ‘You can’t advise people to eat a hundred grams of chocolate every day,’ says Kromhout. ‘That’s why we wanted to find out whether a smaller quantity also had positive effects’.

The researchers were not disappointed. They divided the men into three groups for the experiment: those who ate no cacao at all, those who consumed an average amount, and those who consumed a relatively large amount of cacao. ‘The men in the group that ate the most cacao consumed an average of four grams daily,’ continues Kromhout. ‘That is the amount in a biggish chocolate Easter egg weighing ten grams.’ Eating this modest amount of chocolate halved the chance of fatal heart and circulatory diseases compared with the group who ate no chocolate. It is probably the flavanols in the cacao that are responsible for the protective working.

However, the research is not proof that cacao is therefore good for the heart and blood vessels. ‘A lot more work is needed before we know that for sure,’ says Kromhout. Chocolate contains a lot of calories. ‘Plain chocolate contains about forty percent cacao,’ continues Kromhout. ‘The rest consists of fat and sugar. The main fat in chocolate is the saturated fatty acid stearic acid, which does not interfere with cholesterol, fortunately.’

It is absolutely not the intention of the researchers in publishing this article to promote the message that people should eat as much chocolate as they like. ‘I would like to draw a parallel with drinking alcohol,’ says Kromhout. ‘One glass of wine a day is healthy, we now know. But it is also clear that four, five or more glasses per day are not good for the body.’ / WK