A new study from Italy's University of L'Aquila, published in this month's American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is consistent with previous research suggesting that naturally occurring flavanol compounds found in certain cocoa and chocolates may provide heart health benefits.
Yet, not all chocolate is created equal. In many cases, the science is often translated to say all dark chocolate contains these potentially heart-healthy compounds. In fact, the processing of the chocolate has the greatest impact on the presence of the flavanol compounds in the finished chocolate.
"While the university's results are exciting — especially for chocolate lovers — not all chocolate contains high levels of flavanols, which impart these potential heart healthy benefits," says Dr. Catherine Kwik-Uribe, Ph.D., research chemist for Mars Inc.
Kwik-Uribe added, "In fact, only certain cocoas and chocolates are specially processed to retain much of the flavanols naturally occurring in cocoa beans."
While research is promising, Mars Nutrition Communications director Marlene Machut cautions, "It's not about eating more chocolate, but rather about working flavanol-rich foods into an overall healthy, balanced diet. First start with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and then you may be able to fit in an 80-calorie bar."
In addition, Mars developed a method to determine the amount and type of flavanols found in certain foods. The United States Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) has since adopted and adapted the Mars analytical methodology and is proceeding to develop a database to identify flavanol-rich foods and quantify the specific flavanol content found in these foods.
The Italian study suggests that consuming flavanol-rich chocolate can decrease systolic blood pressure, the peak blood pressure, which occurs when the heart pumps blood into the arteries, and improve insulin sensitivity in healthy people. These findings are consistent with earlier studies identifying similar heart health benefits of cocoa flavanols.
"It's understandable that everyone wants to share in the good news when research like this is announced, but the important thing to remember is that not all cocoa and chocolate share high flavanol levels, which is where we are seeing the potential benefits for cardiovascular health," says Kwik-Uribe.