One of the world's greatest sweets may soon weigh down supermarket shelves following news that dark chocolate may help keep hearts purring with perfection. Researchers in Italy have found that eating half a bar each week can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Their findings were recently published in the Journal of Nutrition.
The epidemiological study, one of the biggest in Europe, found that 6.7 grams of chocolate each day have the potential to keep inflammation at bay and prevent heart disease.
The Moli-Sani project researchers paid particular attention to the complex mechanism of inflammation. Most experts agree that chronic inflammation wreaks havoc on the human body, and the heart in particular. Pain, swelling and irritation could trigger a number of disorders including stroke and myocardial infarction.
According to the researchers, prevention programmes have been devised to keep the inflammation process under control and C reactive protein (CRP) is one of the most promising markers. CRP is used by scientists not only as a marker for inflammation, but it can also be used in determining the progress of disease or the effectiveness of treatments. Scientists can detect CRP via a simple blood test, they added.
For this project, the team related the protein levels in the blood of the study participants with their typical chocolate intake. Out of a random sample size of 11 000 people, 4 849 were healthy and disease risk-free. Their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, among others, were normal. Also, up to 1 317 people were not regular chocolate eaters, while 824 consumed only dark chocolate regularly.
'We started from the hypothesis that high amounts of antioxidants contained in the cocoa seeds, in particular flavonoids and other kinds of polyphenols, might have beneficial effects on the inflammatory state,' explained Dr Romina di Giuseppe, lead author of the study. 'Our results have been absolutely encouraging; people having moderate amounts of dark chocolate regularly have significantly lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood,' she said. 'In other words, their inflammatory state is considerably reduced.'
While some people may think the 17% average drop in inflammation is not significant, 'it is enough to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease for one third in women and one fourth in men', she added. 'It is undoubtedly a remarkable outcome.'
This doesn't mean that people should go out and buy hoards of chocolate. 'We are talking of a moderate consumption,' the researcher said. Best effects are brought on when people consume an average amount of 6.7 grams of chocolate each day. 'This corresponds to a small square of chocolate twice or three times a week.' Consumption topping this level would erase the beneficial effects of chocolate, she remarked.
Chocolate bars typically weigh in at 100 grams, so the team believes that half of this each week is good for you.
The researchers focused on dark chocolate because they found that in previous studies milk chocolate interferes in the absorption of polyphenols. 'That is why our study considered just the dark chocolate,' Dr di Giuseppe said.
The researchers pointed out that other factors might also be involved because people who generally adore chocolate, also consume other healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables. 'In order to avoid this, we adjusted for all possible confounding parameters. But the beneficial effect of chocolate still remained and we do believe it is real,' the lead author said.
Project coordinator Professor Licia Iacoviello said, 'This study is the first scientific outcome published from the Moli-Sani project.' The Catholic University professor said this latest finding is just the 'beginning of a large series of data that will give us an innovative view' on how to prevent cardiovascular disease and tumours.