December 13/Qatar News Agency -- Eating a small, 1.6-ounce bar of dark chocolate every day is good for you, finds Mary Engler, Phd, Rn, of The University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues. Engler's team divided 21 healthy adults into two groups. One group got a Dove dark chocolate bar every day for two weeks.

Like other dark chocolate bars with high-cocoa content, this one is loaded with something called epicatechin. Epicatechin is a particularly active member of a group of compounds called plant flavonoids. Flavonoids keep cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels, reduce the risk of blood clots, and slow down the immune responses that lead to clogged arteries.

The second group that did not get Dove bars was not totally left out. They, too, got dark chocolate bars, but their treats had the flavonoids taken out. All subjects underwent high-tech evaluation of how well the blood vessels dilate and relax -- an indicator of healthy blood vessel function. Blood vessel stiffness indicates diseased vessels and possible atherosclerosis. Those who got the full-flavonoid chocolate did significantly better. Why? Blood Tests showed that high levels of epicatechin were coursing through their arteries. "This is the longest clinical trial to date to show improvement in blood vessel function from consuming flavonoid-rich dark chocolate daily over an extended period of time," Engler says in a news release. "It is likely that the elevated blood levels of epicatechin triggered the release of active substances that ... increase blood flow in the artery. Better blood flow is good for your heart."

Not all chocolate is created equal. Dark chocolate contains a lot more cocoa than other forms of chocolate. And standard chocolate manufacturing destroys up to half of the flavonoids. But chocolate companies have now learned to make dark chocolate that keeps up to 95% of its flavonoids. Sure, this seems like a scam. Can't you get more and better flavonoids from other foods? Surprisingly, the answer is "not really." Engler says that dark chocolate contains more flavonoids than any other food -- including green tea, black tea, red wine, and blueberries. "Many people don't realize that chocolate is plant-derived, as are the fruits and vegetables recommended for a healthy heart," Engler says. While a little dark chocolate is good, a lot is not better. Chocolate still is loaded with calories. If you're going to eat more chocolate, you'll have to cut back somewhere else. And remember that a balanced diet -- and plenty of exercise -- is still the key to heart health. Engler's study was funded by The University of California, San Francisco, School of Nursing.

From the December 17, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash