Worldwide, heart disease is the leading cause of death, claiming over 17 million people each year, and that number is expected to grow to 23 million by 2030. Every day, in the United States alone, over 2,000 people die of heart disease — one every 90 seconds.
As a result, there is a continuing increase in the research related to cardiovascular health. One of the most interesting discoveries is the relationship between cocoa flavanols (a naturally occurring element in the cocoa bean used to make chocolate) and heart functions.
One of the first studies on the benefits of cocoa flavanols consumption in relationship to cardiovascular health was conducted in the early 1990s by a Harvard Medical School professor, Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg, when he presented new findings based on his 20 years of working with the Kuna Indians of Panama.
The Kuna Indians are an indigenous community of approximately 50,000 people, living on a group of islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. The Kuna have very low blood pressure levels, a much-reduced frequency of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. They live longer than other Kuna, who appear to lose these advantages when they migrate to nearby Panama City. Dr. Hollenberg felt that the benefit could not be explained by “good genes.” Accordingly, his team of researchers focused on studying environmental factors, including stress, pollution, and diet.
It soon became apparent that an exceptional feature of their diet was the inclusion of natural flavanol-rich cocoa. They drank 4-5 glasses of cocoa daily, which is probably the highest flavanol intake of any community on the planet. Researchers estimated the intake to be approximately 1,880 mg of cocoa flavanols per day. *
Prior to Dr. Hollenberg’s work, scientists had discovered that flavanoids stimulated the body to produce something called nitric oxide (NO) gas. The gas influences the elasticity of the blood vessels, thus improving blood circulation.
Observational studies like Dr. Hollenberg’s cannot provide undisputed evidence on the value of a specific food. However, his initial research with the Kuna population provided a valuable service. It uncovered evidence suggesting that cocoa flavanols were responsible for activating a gene (or genes) that make nitric oxide (NO), which is responsible for relaxing the blood vessels to allow the increased flow of blood and oxygen to the heart, brain and other parts of the body.
Since Dr. Hollenberg’s report there have been dozens of scientific papers confirming improved cardiovascular heath in connection with the intake of cocoa flavanols.
* The Kuna consume cocoa, not the flavanol-poor highly processed chocolate and mass produced confectionary products that are commonly consumed in the developed world. Unfortunately, most commercially available products do not list the amount of the flavanols on their label. To make sure you are getting a chocolate with health benefits, look for the numerical indication of the flavanol content on a label.