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Happy Easter!

Posted 03/04/2012 by cgodfrey

The timing could not have been better. A week before the annual Easter chocolate fest, researchers at the ACS meeting in San Diego, California, presented new evidence for the benefits of dark chocolate in people – and the good news just got even better. Not only does chocolate containing 70% cocoa solids or more contain high levels of healthful antioxidants and help to lower levels of ‘bad’ HDL cholesterol, but it really does help to reduce stress and emotional anxiety in people and protect against liver disease in animals in the laboratory.

And it may even help top boost muscle development in a similar way to exercise, US researchers reported. In experiments with mice fed with cocoa rich in the active flavonoid ingredient epicatechin, Francisco Villarreal and colleagues at the University of San Diego observed a 35% increase in the number of muscle mitochondria together with an even bigger increase in the number of ‘cristae’ inside them – which is where ATP involved in energy generation is actually made. The group also reported increases in mitochondrial proteins associated with muscle biogenesis. ‘There is no true replacement for exercise, but for those who require a supplement or drug to improve muscle structure/function this seems to be quite promising,’ Villareal commented, pointing out that it may be helpful for people unable to exercise because of age or disabilities.

A study by Swiss researchers at Nestlé, meanwhile, found that eating dark chocolate every day reduced levels of stress hormones and other indicators of emotional anxiety, while regular chocolate consumers also host a different population of gut bacteria – better able to metabolise healthful polyphenols, according to Sunil Kochar, of Nestlé Research Center in Switzerland. And finally, it appears that chocolate consumption may be even more beneficial for smokers, for whom polyphenols in dark chocolate suppress clot formation.

None of this will be especially important for Kuna Indians in Panama, who consume the highest known levels of chocolate and have some of the lowest reported levels of CVD and other associated diseases.

For chocoholics, however, there is just one catch – many of the benefits of eating chocolate only apply at small doses, around 5g of high cocoa solids/ day in the case of the Villarreal study. Indeed, the effects appear to follow a ‘U-shaped curve so as the dose increases the effect disappears,’ he points out. ‘So the less you eat the better!’

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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