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the much maligned chocolate can actually act as a powerful tool against heart attacks. Andrew L Waterhouse, Joseph R Shirley and Jennifer L Donovan from the department of viticulture and enology, University of California, Davis, us report that chocolate contains potent chemicals that neutralise substances directly implicated in coronary heart disease. And to top it, Waterhouse and colleagues go a step further and advocate consumption of another taboo. To extract the maximum benefits from chocolate, they suggest a glass of red wine to wash it down (Lancet, Vol 348, No 9030).
Chocolate has a mixture of more than 400 compounds, including stimulants like caffeine, theobromine plus tyramine and phenyl tyramine, which produce alertness and slightly higher blood pressure. Chocolates also contain phenolics, chemicals that are potent antioxidants for low density lipoproteins that deliver cholesterol to the cells.
Cholesterol, a soft fatty substance that forms part of our cells cannot dissolve in blood and needs to be carried around by something else. Lipoproteins are its means of transport. Low density lipoproteins (ldls) deliver cholesterol to the cells and high density lipoproteins (hdls) carry any excess back to the liver for safe disposal. If, however, there are too many ldls and too few hdls, surplus cholesterol gets deposited on or in the artery walls. The walls become pitted and blood channels become narrow. Phenolic compounds boost hdl levels thus helping artery walls from getting clogged.
Waterhouse and colleagues tested a range of confectionary products for their phenol content. They found that one piece of a 40 gm milk chocolate had almost the same amount of phenol (about 205 mg) as a glass of red wine (210 mg). Plain dark chocolate contained even more phenol (8.4 mg/gm) than the milk variety (5.0 mg/gm). A hot cup of chocolate with about 7.4 gm (two spoonfuls) of cocoa would have as much as 146 mg of phenol. Cocoa powder is thus a very potent antioxidant. In fact, it even exceeds the antioxidant potential of red wine -- 37-65 per cent versus 75-87 per cent in the case of the former.
Our bodies produce several free radicals in response to external disturbances like radiation, smoke and exhaust fumes. These free radicals are highly unstable and damaging atoms that can oxidise our body tissues, resulting sometimes in cancer. Antioxidants can mop up these free radicals.
The beneficial effects of red wine are increasingly being realised. "Red wine is the most effective drug yet discovered for the prevention of heart disease," insists Serge Renaud of the France-based National Institute for Health and Medical Research. He says that moderate intake of red wine provides 30-40 per cent more protection against heart disease than beer or other spirits.
Renaud's team at Bordeaux studied over 37,000 French men over a 12 year period for the beneficial effects of red wine. As in chocolate, red wines contain phenolics, 50 or so compounds in far more abundance than white wine or other beverages. This heart-friendly wine also contains resveratrol (a phenolic) as a natural constituent. Resveratrol appears to act in the blood and arteries in the same way as alcohol, but with an added bonus. Half the alcohol's (and part of resveratrol's ) benefit to the circulatory system comes from its ability to rid the blood of unwanted cholesterol. What red wine does is to boost the hdl levels by about 15 per cent so that the artery walls are cleared of the cholesterol, particularly through resveratrol which also adds its own extra hdl. Resveratrol works as an antioxidant as well.
Phenolics also help in the prevention of dangerous, heart-stopping clots. Both alcohol as well as resveratrol affect platelets, tiny discs in blood that staunch the flow when we cut ourselves. When ldls cause serious damage to a particular spot on an artery wall, platelets link together to form a protective net around the wound, helping blood to clot. These clots can enter narrow arteries and cause heart attacks. Regular intake of moderate amounts of red wine makes the platelets less 'sticky' and, therefore, less able to form a clot.