Chocolate in the form of heart. Melted chocolate syrup on white background. Liquid chocolate on a white background.

A big new study is being launched by Mars Inc., and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. The purpose of the study is to see if pills containing the nutrients in dark chocolate can help with heart health; specifically in the prevention of heart attacks and strokes.

For countless centuries, cocoa has been used to produce chocolate not only for its delicious taste, but also for its reputed health benefits. Archaeologists have found evidence of cocoa consumption dating back to at least 1600 BC. In fact, archaeologists discovered bowls used to drink chocolate by the Aztecs in modern-day Honduras. Aztec Emperor Montezuma was a well-known cocoa connoisseur, and called it a “divine drink”. Since then much has changed in the way that we consume cocoa. The chocolate industry developed after cocoa was imported to Europe during the Age of Discovery, and since then we’ve modernized cocoa into a variety of super sweet candies. Dr. JoAnn Manson, preventive medicine chief at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston says that many modern-day production techniques may rid chocolate of its healthy nutrients, which may hold heart-health related benefits.

Even bittersweet dark chocolate such as chocolate with 72% cocoa, contains around 240 calories per serving, 18 grams of fat, and 10 grams of sugar. To get the health benefits of Dr. Manson’s study, you’d need to eat at least five dark chocolate bars per day to get the same serving. That amounts to over 1,200 calories per day, which is over half of the recommended daily allowance.

That’s why this new study will see if pills containing the nutrients of dark chocolate, without the added fats, and sugars, can offer similar health benefits. Dr. Manson asserts that the pills are tasteless, as she’s tried them herself.

The study will enroll 18,000 men, and women from Boston and Seattle, and will continue for four years. Each participant will ingest two pills each day, which will contain 750 milligrams of cocoa flavanols for four years. Those participants in the control group will ingest non-cocoa pills, instead.

Dr. JoAnn Manson, preventive medicine chief at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston says, “The idea of the study is to see whether there are health benefits from chocolate’s ingredients minus the sugar and fat.”

“You’re not going to get these protective flavanols in most of the candy on the market. Cocoa flavanols are often destroyed by the processing,” said Manson, who will lead the study with Howard Sesso at Brigham and other similar studies at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Manson and her team will recruit participants from existing studies, in order to save money, and time. Others with a strong interest in the cocoa flavanol study may also be allowed to participate. Women participants will be vetted from the Women’s Health Initiative Study, and men will be recruited from other well-known studies.

Manson, a well-respected researcher, is also currently leading another study testing vitamin D pills, which is sponsored by the government. Results from these vitamin D studies should be available in three years.

This will be the first large study of cocoa flavonols, which have been proven in previous studies to improve blood pressure, cholesterol, artery health, insulin regulation, and other heart-health related matters.

Although some critics argue the validity of the study due to its sponsorship by Mars Inc., the makers of M&Ms and other sweets, others note that Mars Inc. has been funding cocoa flavanol research for decades. In fact, much of what we know about the benefits of cocoa has come from that very research.

How Cocoa Flavanols Work

The first evidence of the health benefits of cocoa came from the Kuna Indian tribe, who live on islands near Panama. The Kuna are one of the few cultures on the planet that do not experience increases in blood pressure, or the development of arterial hypertension. The Kunas consume absolutely enormous amounts of cocoa each day. Clinical studies even revealed that the Kuna Indians have lower blood pressure than other nearby peoples.

Later studies pointed to plant-derived flavanols as the ingredient in cocoa, which gives it its healthy powers. Scientists now believe that cocoa helps the heart as a vasodilator, which means that cocoa triggers the relaxation of blood vessel muscle cells. These blood vessels then relax, and widen, which results in better circulation, and decreased blood pressure.

Other heart healthy foods

Other foods are well-known as heart healthy foods, such as fish. The American Heart Association actually recommends eating fish at least twice per week due to its high dosage of Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 can help to slow plaque buildup in arteries, lower cholesterol, and even lower blood pressure.

In order to benefit from Omega 3, one would have to eat a large quantity of fish each week. However, with Omega 3 supplements, high levels of Omega 3 can be achieved in order to enjoy the numerous health benefits that it produces.

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