News | January 01, 2009

Dark Chocolate May Help Lower Risk of Heart Attack

January 2, 2009 - An Italian study recently found dark chocolate, in moderation, may help prevent cardiovascular disease.

The Moli-sani Project, carried out by the Research Laboratories of the Center for High Technology Research and Education in Biomedical Sciences at the Catholic University in Campobasso, collaboration with the National Cancer Institute of Milan, is investigating environmental and genetic factors responsible for cardiovascular disease and tumors. Researchers found 6.7 grams of chocolate per day represents the ideal amount for a protective effect against cardovascular inflammation. A new effect of chocolate was demonstrated for the first time in a population study,

The findings were published in the September issue of the Journal of Nutrition, official journal of the American Society of Nutrition. The Moli-sani Project enrolled 20,000 inhabitants of the Molise region so far, and by studying the participants researchers focused on the complex mechanism of inflammation. Chronic inflammatory state represents a risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease, from myocardial infarction to stroke. Keeping the inflammation process under control has become a major issue for prevention programs and C reactive protein turned out to be one of the most promising markers using a blood test.

The Italian team related the levels of this protein in the blood of examined people with their usual chocolate intake. Out of 11,000 people, researchers identified 4,849 in good health and free of risk factors (normal cholesterol, blood pressure and other parameters). Among them, 1,317 did not use to eat any chocolate, while 824 used to have chocolate regularly, but just the dark one.

“We started from the hypothesis that high amounts of antioxidants contained in the cocoa seeds, in particular flavonoids and other kinds of polyphenols, might have beneficial effects on the inflammatory state,” said Romina di Giuseppe, the lead author of the study. “Our results have been absolutely encouraging - people having moderate amounts of dark chocolate regularly have significantly lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood. In other words, their inflammatory state is considerably reduced.”

The 17 percent average reduction observed may appear small, but researchers say it is enough to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease for one-third in women and one-fourth in men.

The best effect is obtained by consuming an average amount of 6.7 grams of chocolate per day, corresponding to a small square of chocolate twice or three times a week, di Giuseppe said. Beyond these amounts he said the beneficial effect tends to disappear.

The study shows benefit only with dark chocolate. Previous studies showed milk in milk chocolate interferes with the absorption of polyphenols, di Giuseppe said. “That is why our study considered just the dark chocolate,” he said.

Researchers wanted to sweep all the doubts away. They took into account that chocolate lovers might consume other healthy food too, as wine, fruits and vegetables. Or they might exercise more than others people do. So the observed positive effect might be ascribed to other factors but not to cocoa itself. In order to avoid this, researchers said they adjusted for all possible confounding parameters, but the beneficial effect of chocolate still remained.

"This study is the first scientific outcome published from the Moli-sani Project,” said Licia Iacoviello, head of the laboratory of genetic and environmental epidemiology at the Catholic University of Campobasso and responsible for the Moli-sani Project. “We consider this outcome as the beginning of a large series of data, which will give us an innovative view on how making prevention in everyday life, both against cardiovascular disease and tumors.”

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