Chocoholics rejoice; study shows that the flavanols in cocoa can reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer

Friday, May 26, 2006 by: Jessica Fraser
Tags: cocoa, cacao, cancer

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The news the world has awaited with bated breath is finally here: Cocoa prevents cancer and heart disease. Candy producer Mars Inc., along with Harvard University, released the results of a 10-year study on Feb. 9 revealing that cocoa rather, the flavanols in cocoa can substantially reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

The study compared the death certificates of 1,250 Kuna Indians in Panama and in the San Blas Islands just off Panama's coast. The Panama Kunas did not consume cocoa regularly, while the San Blas Kunas drank four to five cups of cocoa water per day. The study revealed that the San Blas Kunas, who drank the cocoa water, had a 1,280 percent lower risk of death from heart disease than the Panama Kunas, and a 630 percent lower risk of death from cancer.

In the United States, where heart disease and cancer are the top two causes of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is fantastic news. Cocoa, which chocolate is made from, can significantly help in the prevention of cancer and heart disease.

But don't leap to the wrong conclusions and think that chocolate candy is good medicine. Most chocolate in the United States packs a sizeable dose of sugar and milk fat to make it sweet and delicious, and thereby desired by most consumers. Eating milk chocolate bars, for example, will not help you prevent cancer or heart disease nearly as well as eating darker chocolate, because adding dairy products to chocolate effectively cancels out the healthy antioxidants in the cocoa itself. It may taste good, but it's largely useless as far as preventing cancer and heart disease. In fact, even eating some popular brands of dark chocolate will not help you prevent these diseases, since they, too, are often loaded with sugar and milk fats.

A good rule of thumb is to consume chocolate containing a minimum of 70 percent pure cocoa. Avoid added sugars, artificial sweeteners and milk fat to truly gain the natural anti-cancer benefits of cocoa. The best form in which you can consume cocoa is its most pure form: Raw cacao. Cacao is the actual bean that cocoa comes from, and it is one of the richest food sources of flavanols available. It's completely raw, so it hasn't been processed, and it lacks the sugars, food additives and milk fats that are so common in processed chocolate. In addition, the flavanols in raw cacao are highly absorbable by the body, since there is no sugar or milk fat interfering with their benefits.

Just remember the details of the Mars study: The Kuna Indians of the San Blas islands experienced their amazing health benefits from drinking a cocoa-water beverage. They weren't eating milk chocolate bars or sugar-laden dark chocolate. They certainly weren't eating white chocolate, which contains no cocoa and therefore doesn't help prevent cancer or heart disease in the least. They were consuming a bitter, natural source of cocoa.

We've seen now that pure cocoa or cacao does indeed prevent cancer and heart disease. The study results are in, and they strongly indicate the healthy benefits of cocoa. However, consumers may misinterpret this news in two ways. First, they may go out and eat as much sweet, sugary, fatty milk chocolate as they want, and be surprised when their eventual obesity actually leads them to have an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. Secondly, they may think that cocoa -- even in its truest, purest form -- is the only food available that offers these benefits.

In addition to dark chocolate and cacao, a wide variety of foods and beverages contain flavanols: Green and black tea, acai, pomegranate, cherries, apples, apricots, blackberries and raspberries, purple grapes, kale and many others. While consuming cacao or high-cocoa dark chocolate on a regular basis will indeed help you significantly reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease, remember that it is not your only option. However, for cocoa lovers around the world, the word is out: Your favorite food has finally been proven to help prevent cancer and heart disease, the top two causes of death in the United States.

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