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Chocolate Reduces Inflammation and Improves Heart Health

Benefits of Chocolate

Good news for chocolate lovers - which is just about everyone. Consumption of antioxidant-rich chocolate leads to reductions in the levels of inflammatory compounds that contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a leading cause of heart attack, peripheral artery disease, coronary artery disease, and stroke.

Several previous studies have uncovered health benefits of chocolate, including a positive impact on blood pressure, insulin resistance, and vascular function. The beneficial ingredient in chocolate is cocoa, which is rich in flavonoids, a type of polyphenol (a plant-based antioxidant). Few studies have examined the anti-inflammatory effects of cocoa, and given the importance of inflammation in heart disease, a randomized, controlled trial seemed in order.

The researchers enrolled 42 individuals with an average age of 70 who were at high risk for coronary heart disease: the individuals were diabetics, smokers, obese, hypertensive, and/or had abnormal LDL or HDL cholesterol levels, as well as a family history of early coronary heart disease. During the eight-week study, the participants were assigned to consume either skim milk or skim milk plus cocoa powder that contained 495 mg of polyphenols. After the first four weeks, the participants were switched to the other group.

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Tests results showed that blood levels of biomarkers that are involved in the migration of white blood cells into the lining of blood vessels (endothelium), which promotes inflammation, were significantly lower when the participants consumed cocoa plus milk than milk alone. Cocoa also resulted in a reduction in the expression of adhesion proteins in white blood cells, another process involved in the development of atherosclerosis.

Not just any chocolate will provide these benefits, however. Chocolate lovers who also want to help their heart should look for products that have a high cocoa content (more than 70 percent). Commercially available cocoa powders also have dramatically lower levels of fat than most standard chocolate bars.

Corti R et al. Circulation 2009 Mar 17; 119(10): 1433-41
Monagas M et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition online doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.27716

Also see how chocolate benefits heart attack victims.