UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A Penn State-led study has found that a diet high in flavonoid-rich cocoa powder and dark chocolate can have a beneficial effect on cholesterol.
When compared with a diet that limited or excluded other flavonoid sources such as tea, coffee, wine, onions, apples, beans, soybeans, and orange and grape juices, chocolate had a favorable effect on LDL, or “bad”, cholesterol.
Penny Kris-Etherton, Penn State professor of nutrition who led the study, said “Cocoa and chocolate are ‘fun foods’ and I think these results show that they can contribute to a healthy diet – especially if they are used in forms that don’t include large amounts of fat and sugar.
“However,” she cautioned, “cocoa and chocolate shouldn’t be considered significant sources of flavonoids in the same category with fruits and vegetables which also have fiber, vitamins and minerals.”
New way of looking. The current study was the first to evaluate and compare LDL (low density lipoprotein) susceptibility to oxidation when the test subjects ate an average American diet purposely made low in flavonoids or a diet that contained about one and a quarter ounces of cocoa powder and dark chocolate which are rich flavonoid sources.
Oxidation of LDLs is thought to play an important role in the development of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries.
Increasing LDL’s resistance to oxidation is thought to possibly delay the progression of the disease. Flavonoids, which are present in a wide variety of plants, have long been known to inhibit LDL oxidation.
Ate both ways. In the study ate either the average American but low flavonoids diet or a chocolate-supplemented diet for four weeks. After a two-week break in which the participants ate their habitual diet, they switched for another four weeks to the experimental diet they hadn’t consumed during the first four-week period.
Both experimental diets contained the same amount of caffeine and theobromine, which are stimulants found in chocolate and cocoa. Cocoa butter was used in baked goods in the average American diet to match the amount of cocoa butter in the dark chocolate.
The cocoa and dark chocolate were incorporated into the experimental diet in milk or pudding snacks or baked into cookies or brownies and eaten throughout the day by the subjects.
Chocolate benefits. When the subjects ate the cocoa and chocolate containing diet, oxidation of LDL cholesterol occurred about 8 percent slower compared to when they ate the experimental average American diet. Analysis of their blood plasma also showed that total antioxidant capacity was four percent greater after the cocoa and chocolate containing diet.
HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) was four percent higher after the chocolate diet than after the average American diet.
The conclusion drawn for the study was that the incorporation of dark chocolate and cocoa powder into the diet is one means of effectively increasing antioxidant intake.
If dark chocolate and cocoa powder are added to a diet already rich in other food sources of antioxidants, such as fruit, vegetables, tea and wine, the result would be a very high antioxidant intake and could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
“An important caveat,” Kris-Etherton said, “is that chocolate be incorporated sensibly and prudently in a healthy diet that emphasizes the intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, skim milk, reduced-fat dairy products, fatty fish and lean meats, fish and poultry.
“A balanced dietary approach that includes a wide variety of foods in the diet is preferred to total exclusion of certain foods. Nonetheless, we would be remiss in endorsing unlimited quantities of chocolate.”