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February 12, 2005

BehindTheMedspeak: Functional Chocolates?

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So now they're taking the fun out of chocolate, and inserting function instead.

You knew it was only a matter of time, didn't you?

Candy giant Mars for years has been quietly funding scientists looking for beneficial effects from its products.

They appear to finally have hit a sweet liquid center.

Recent work published in peer-reviewed journals has demonstrated, for example, that two of the company's CocoaVia™ bars a day can significantly reduce cholesterol levels.

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The bars are currently only sold online, and touted to "promote a healthy heart."

Coming soon are cocoa powder and beverages with similar ingredients.

Then there's Bissinger's, which makes Spa Chocolate.

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They advertise them as helping to prevent heart disease, enhance short-term memory, and slow aging.

There are also claims from other manufacturers that their chocolate products will smooth skin, improve sleep, reduce stress or alleviate symptoms of PMS and menopause.

Why am I not convinced?

Perhaps I'm just not easily swayed by sweet talk.

Here's Robert J. Davis's article on the subject from the February 8 Wall Street Journal.

    Health Claims for Chocolate

    It's probably not the most romantic Valentine's gift: chocolate that fights PMS.

    But there are a growing number of such healthful-sounding chocolate products, sometimes called "functional" chocolates, that carry promises to do everything from smoothing skin to preventing heart disease.

    Though there's preliminary evidence that certain forms of chocolate may offer some health benefits, most of the product claims are questionable.

    The strongest evidence for chocolate's possible benefits concerns heart disease.

    Research shows that a main ingredient of chocolate -- cocoa -- is high in antioxidants known as flavanols, which are also found in red wine, fruits, beans, nuts and certain teas.

    Some test-tube and human research suggests that flavanols in cocoa may have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular health by making vessels more flexible and blood less likely to clot.

    Findings from large population studies -- most of which have involved foods other than chocolate -- have been mixed.

    Some have found an association between high flavanol intake and lower cholesterol and blood pressure, along with a lower risk of early death among people with heart disease.

    Others have found no relationship.

    The level of flavanols in chocolate varies widely, depending on where the cocoa comes from and how it's processed. In general, raw cocoa is high in flavanols.

    But common techniques to enhance the flavor of cocoa, such as fermentation and roasting, can substantially decrease flavanol levels.

    Milk chocolate tends to have lower flavanol levels than dark chocolate because it contains less cocoa.

    For years, the candy giant Mars Inc. has been working to come up with high-flavanol cocoa products.

    So far it has introduced Dove Dark, for which it makes no health claims, and CocoaVia bars, which are sold only over the Internet and touted to "promote a healthy heart."

    The company says it plans to soon introduce a similar cocoa powder and beverage.

    To develop these chocolates, the company has funded research, some of which has been published in peer-reviewed journals.

    There's less research behind other products, such as Spa Chocolate made by Bissinger's.

    It includes dark and sugar-free chocolates combined with antioxidant-rich fruits or beneficial nuts.

    Consumers are urged to eat one piece daily, each of which is touted to help prevent heart disease, enhance short-term memory or slow aging.

    But many nutrition experts say there's no evidence for these claims and scoff at the notion that you can derive a benefit from the level of ingredients in a single piece of chocolate.

    They're equally skeptical of claims for chocolate bars, sold by various manufacturers, that supposedly smooth skin, improve sleep, reduce stress or alleviate the symptoms of PMS and menopause.

    Many experts say there's nothing wrong with treating yourself to chocolate now and then.

    If you prefer something that's flavanol-rich or has added ingredients, fine.

    But remember that chocolate is high in calories, so don't overdo it. However it's made and whatever it contains, chocolate is, after all, candy -- not medicine.

February 12, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink


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