Succumb to the temptation

Chocolates could hold the key to a healthy, long life

 
Published: Monday 15 November 1999

indulging in chocolates is good for the heart, say scientists. Shunned by many for its high calories, chocolate actually ensures long, healthy life.

It is known that chocolate is more than a rich source of energy. For example, a pound of cocoa gives over 2,000 calories of energy. About 40 per cent of this comes from carbohydrates, an equal amount from fats and the remaining from proteins. Moreover, cocoa contains small amounts of minerals, vitamins and an important class of protective chemicals called catechins from the family of flavanoids. Being such a powerful source of energy, chocolate is the most preferred food for long-distance runners, bicycle riders and soldiers fighting wars in difficult terrain, needing plenty of calories.

But it is catechins that make chocolate a subject of interest for health researchers. These chemicals are reported in other beverages, too. For instance, a different version of catechins is found in tea. Flavanoids are among the most powerful antioxidants -- compounds that protect the body against chemicals called free radicals that damage cells. The beneficial effects of tea are well documented due to their rich flavanoid content. Tea drinkers thus have been reported to have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. As chocolate -- particularly dark chocolate -- contains high levels of antioxidants, it naturally suggests that the sweet might actually be good for our health.

In a new study, Ilea C W Arts of the National Institute of Public Health and Environment at Bilthoven, the Netherlands, and colleagues report that chocolate contains four times the level of catechins as compared to black tea. If the protective health effect is due to the catechins in tea, the health benefit may extend to chocolate as well, as it contains substantial quantities of these chemicals ( The Lancet , Vol 354, No 9177).

In the study conducted by the Dutch, researchers analysed equal amounts of six different catechins and found that dark chocolate contained the highest level: 53.5 milligrammes (mg) of catechins per 100 gramme (g). Milk chocolate contained 15.9 mg per 100 g, and black tea contained 13.9 mg per 100 ml. A cup of hot chocolate contains about the same quantity of antioxidants as that present in about the same quantity of red wine. And red wine is known to be good for the heart.

The antioxidants fight diseases caused by stress, especially due to arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cataract and some forms of cancer. The flavanoids also stimulate the immune system as also some enzymes associated with combating the invading germs.

"Since it is probably more enjoyable to drink one litre of tea than to eat one kg of chocolate, we aimed to find out the importance of chocolate as a source of catechins in the habitual diet," the authors write. They studied 6,250 Dutch people and found that tea was a vital source of antioxidants. It contributed to about 55 per cent of the total intake of antioxidants. However, chocolate, too, was an important source, making up 20 per cent of the total intake.

The findings have important implications concerning the health effects of tea, the investigators note. Other sources of catechins, such as chocolate, should also be taken into account. "In the end," the researchers conclude, "the old Dutch habit of drinking a cup of tea and eating a chocolate cookie might not only be enjoyable but healthy as well." The Americans do it differently: they are fond of sipping red wine with chocolates. Perhaps, now you can reach for that bar of chocolate with a cup of black tea thrown in to lessen the guilt.

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