LONDON (AP) -- Scientists already have suggested that eating chocolate may make you happy. Now they say men who indulge in chocolates may live longer.
A study of 7,841 Harvard male graduates found that chocolate and candy eaters -- regardless of how voracious their appetite for goodies -- live almost a year longer than those who abstain.
The researchers from Harvard University's School of Public Health, whose study was published in this week's issue of the British Medical Journal, said they don't know why this is. They speculate, however, that antioxidants present in chocolate may have a health benefit.
The scientists stress their findings are preliminary, and other experts caution that the research does not prove the results can be attributed to the antioxidants.
In the study, those who ate a "moderate" amount of sweets -- allowing themselves only one to three candy bars a month -- fared the best, having a 36 percent lower risk of death compared with non-candy eaters.
Although they fared worse than the moderates, the more ardent confectionery eaters -- classified as those treating themselves to three or more sweets a week -- still lived longer than those who had banished candy from their lives, with a 16 percent decreased risk of death.
Scientists previously have found that chocolate contains phenols, antioxidant chemicals also present in wine. Antioxidants prevent fat-like substances in the blood from oxidizing and clogging the arteries.
"It's raising a hypothesis that, if true, would bring cheer to those who like chocolate," said Dr. I-Min Lee, an epidemiology professor at Harvard who led the research.
The study, in which men were questioned in 1988 about their candy habits over the past year, did not count chocolate sauce, cake or other chocolate consumed in desserts.
The men, who started the study at an average age of 65, were followed for five years, by which time 514 had died.
The results took into account factors including weight, smoking and other lifestyle habits, but Lee still warned that other health effects could have played a role.
Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist at the University of California at Davis who has researched chocolate's antioxidant properties, said the Harvard hypothesis that the decrease in death risk could be linked to chocolate is "plausible."
He said he was surprised, however, by the finding that eating only three chocolate bars a month was associated with a lower death risk and doubted that was due to phenol.
"That frequency is so low it was surprising there would be any benefit from an antioxidant effect -- if that's the full explanation," he said. "Oranges are high in antioxidants and you wouldn't expect much benefit from eating three oranges a month."
Dr. Catherine Rice-Evans, a professor of biochemistry at Guy's Hospital in London, also doubted that the phenols in chocolate could explain the results.
She said she also was suspicious that the study did not find that the more chocolate the men ate, the lower their risk of death.
"That observation suggests to me that it's nothing to do with the chocolate," she said, adding that studies controlling the diet are necessary to discover if it is a real effect of chocolate.
That Valentine's box of delectable chocolates that made your heart sing last weekend also might -- if it is the right type -- help make it tick better and longer, scientists gathered last week in Washington said.
Raw cocoa contains flavonoids, plant-based compounds with protective antioxidants like those in green tea. The antioxidants, which may help decrease blood pressure and improve circulation, according to preliminary study results released at a daylong session centered on the medical uses and developmental potential of the cocoa tree.
As far back as the Mayas, the South American native tree, formally called the Theobroma cacao, inspired songs praising the liquid, which they called the "food of the gods." The ancient inhabitants produced it from the beans of the tree's football-size pods.
Judging by samples of their pepper-laced version -- the ancient recipe was reproduced for sessiongoers to sample -- the fiery cocoa they brewed was strong enough to jolt the drinker into good health. And for centuries, people followed the Maya and Aztec prescriptions and consumed cocoa, the ground beans of the cacao, for an array of ills.
People believed it would calm their nerves, shrink their hemorrhoids, ease their hangovers, relieve their tuberculosis symptoms and help them lose weight, said Dr. Louis E. Grivetti, a professor in the nutrition department at the University of California at Davis, who spoke at the session.
The seminar was held by the National Academy of Sciences, and its sponsors included the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health, the University of California, the Smithsonian and the chocolate company Mars.
Though chocolate's popularity as a favored sweet trumped its medicinal uses beginning in the mid-19th century, scientists turned again to investigating its health benefits more than a decade ago, financed partly by Mars, which is privately held. So far, researchers have begun to connect flavonoids with lowering the death rate from heart disease, said Dr. Helmut Sies, chairman of the biochemistry department at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany.
The heart benefits of chocolate consumption are far from confirmed. In-depth comparative studies still need to be conducted to learn whether certain elements of cocoa act like baby aspirin for the heart. And some experts point out that the fat in chocolate could instead be associated with deadly cardiovascular and kidney diseases.
Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg, professor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, investigated the Kuna Indians of the San Blas islands of Panama to examine the connection between cocoa consumption and blood pressure.
The Indians have a high-salt diet but normal blood pressure, he said, and they consume locally grown cocoa at every meal. His study tracked some Kuna Indians to the city, where they started drinking commercially ground cocoa. Then, he said, their blood pressure readings tended to rise.
While presenting the results of his research, published in the December 2003 issue of the Journal of Hypertension, Dr. Hollenberg cited a second study showing that cocoa rich in flavonoids could help increase blood flow in the brain and in the hands and legs.
The study, financed by National Institutes of Health grants and by Mars, involved 27 healthy people ages 18 to 72. Each consumed a cocoa beverage containing 900 milligrams of flavonols (a class of flavonoids) daily for five days. Using a finger cuff, blood flow was measured on the first and fifth days of the study.
After five days, researchers measured what they called "significant improvement" in blood flow and the function of the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels.
Dr. Hollenberg's research indicates, preliminarily, that consuming high-flavonol cocoa helps regulate the synthesis of nitric oxide, a compound in the body that helps it maintain blood pressure and blood flow in the endothelial cells. The flavonols may also help vessels dilate and help keep platelets from clustering on the blood vessel walls.
One problem in conducting the studies, said Dr. Harold H. Schmitz, director of science and external research at Mars, stems from differences in types and amounts of flavonols in commercially available chocolate and cocoa. The products are affected by the way the raw materials are handled and processed and by the variety of the cacao.
Mars came up with a patented process for cocoa, called Cocoapro, and supplied it to Dr. Hollenberg for his study. The beverage in its current incarnation is much tastier than some of the earlier versions Mars scientists concocted, Dr. Schmitz said.
The company is also using Cocoapro in some of its chocolate products, including the Dove dark chocolate bar, M&M's and its CocoaVia Snacks, which it has been testing on the Internet (www.cocoavia.com) since October.
The bar, which has 80 calories and claims to lower cholesterol, is made of grains and the specially processed chocolate. It comes in four varieties.
Fresh cocoa beans, however, are far richer in flavonol -- about 10,000 milligrams per 100 grams, or about seven tablespoons -- than processed chocolate products. Cocoapro cocoa powder has about half the amount of flavonol, slightly under 5,000 per 100 grams.
Commercial chocolate products contain much less. For example, 100 grams of Dove dark chocolate contains only about a tenth of the amount of flavonol, or 500 milligrams, according to Mars.
Mars is not certain now how it will tap the consumer market for disease-fighting chocolate -- a powder, a bar or something else, Dr. Schmitz said.
Samples of the flavonol-enhanced chocolate available at the session last week were slightly denser, at least in the dark chocolate variety, than a commercially available chocolate bar.
Mars, which sells about $15 billion of chocolate and other confections a year, has been sponsoring cocoa research for a decade. It has invested "into the seven figures," Dr. Schmitz said, declining to give an exact amount. Industry-paid research raises alarm among public interest groups, but Mars stressed that it had published its research in more than 70 peer-review journals.
Those include articles in 2003 with Dr. Carl L. Keen, chairman of the nutrition department at University of California at Davis, in Nutrition Today, and in 2002 in Phytochemistry Review, The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
They reported that certain cocoa and chocolate could provide significant amounts of heart-healthy flavonol and improve cardiovascular health not only by improving vascular endothelial function but also by delaying harmful clotting that could improve circulation in the feet and hands and reduce inflammation.
Dr. Keen, who has been researching flavonoids in cocoa for eight years, said they were absorbed so quickly that they stayed only briefly in the bloodstream. That may help explain why earlier research overlooked them, Dr. Keen said. Their effect on the body is similar to that of baby aspirin, but lasts longer, he added. The cocoa could be an alternative for people who cannot tolerate aspirin, he added.
"Most chocolate that is currently available is delightful and delicious," Dr. Schmitz said, "but not necessarily good for you. We hope that in a year or two, it is possible to change that."
Dr. Hollenberg warned that chocolates, like vitamins and other substances, have to be tailored to the individual because "good isn't always good; it depends on who you are."
Chocolate's ability to be a miracle drug also depends on supplies. About one-third of the world's cocoa crop is lost yearly through fungal and viral diseases and insects. In 1998, Mars and other chocolate companies began an effort to stem the losses, which threatened a shortfall in beans vital to their business.
With the United States Agriculture Department, the Smithsonian Institution, the World Bank and other institutions, Mars and other researchers have been examining how to fend off those diseases and bolster production to create a viable cash crop on small farms in Africa and Asia.
Researchers reported at last week's session that they had identified some genes in the cacao that make it susceptible to one of the biggest scourges for cocoa farmers: witches' broom fungus, which decimated Brazil's cacao industry. The discovery, they hope, will pave the way for crops that are resistant to the fungus.
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