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Health Benefits of Chocolate Growing

Moderate Amounts May Help Heart Health and More, Researchers Find

What else can chocolate do?

Other studies on the health benefits of chocolate are in earlier phases and are preliminary.

Chocolate may help those with type 2 diabetes minimize the ill effects of high blood sugar levels after eating, says Stephen L. Atkin, MD, a researcher at the Hull York Medical School in the U.K. He gave 10 patients with type 2 diabetes small amounts of chocolate an hour before he gave them glucose to simulate a meal.

He found improvements in their blood vessel functioning, which in turn could help reduce heart disease risk.

Chocolate may help patients with congestive heart failure, says Francisco Villarreal, MD, PhD, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who also spoke at the symposium. In congestive heart failure, the heart doesn't pump enough blood to meet the body's needs.

In a small study with five patients, he gave them about 100 milligrams of a flavonol called epicatechin, found in chocolate, every day for three months.

He measured a substance called nitric oxide, which regulates the contractibility of the blood vessels and affects blood pressure. He found "a very significant increase" in nitric oxide levels.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and The Hershey Company. Villarreal is co-founder of a company developing epicatechin as a treatment.

Other research, which has not yet progressed to people, is looking at the potential of chocolate to treat migraines as well as inhibit colon cancer.

Is all this research likely to be a flash in the pan, a fad that disappears?

The cocoa scientists think not. They've formed the International Society of Chocolate and Cocoa in Medicine. It has scheduled its first international meeting for 2012.

What is the ''magic'' ingredient in chocolate?

A flavonol called epicatechin, an antioxidant, turns up in much chocolate research.

"The flavonol epicatechin warrants further study,'' Villarreal says. It seems to have an effect on the powerhouse of the cell, known as the mitochondria. "Many diseases, including Alzheimer's, seem to have a mitochondrial component," he says.

He suspects the antioxidant properties aren't the whole reason epicatechin has benefits.

Reality check: How much chocolate is enough?

The doses used in studies are all over the place. However, scientists involved in cocoa research seem to love the words "in moderation." At this point, there is no established serving size of chocolate for heart health. A moderate portion size of chocolate is about 1 ounce.

In his studies, Villarreal has found that half a square is the ''sweet spot" for good effects.

Dark chocolate is most often studied and found to have health effects.

A serving a day would be considered moderate, says Rene D. Massengale, PhD, a food chemist in Bloomington, Ind., and a spokesperson for the Institute for Food Technologists. She reviewed the findings but was not involved in the research. She has consulted in the past for Hershey's.

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