The DIY heart cure

It turns out chocolate isn’t as bad for you as you may have thought. In fact, there has been lots of research on its health benefits over the past few years. In the most recent study, researchers found that chocolate not only helps lower blood pressure. But it may also help to prevent cardiovascular events in high risk patients.

Now, before my blood pressure goes up and I  have a cardiovascular event, let me set the record straight. The chocolate they’re talking about isn’t a Snickers Bar or a Hershey’s Kiss. It is the actual cocoa that does the work.

Which is something scientists originally discovered from the Kuna Indians who live off the coast of Panama. They noticed that the Kuna Indians who moved to the mainland had the same rate of heart disease as the typical Panamanians.

But those who stayed on the island and ate a traditional diet, which was very high in cacao, had far less heart disease. That’s when the interest in looking at the benefits of chocolate began.

Since then, there has been a lot of back and forth on the subject of whether chocolate is good for you. Is it or isn’t it?

Well, I think there’s enough evidence to say that cacao is, in fact, a health food. It has an ORAC value greater than 10,000–one of the highest scores of any food substance yet discovered. (ORAC is a measure of antioxidant capacity.) Dark chocolate, derived from cocoa beans, is rich in polyphenols. These specific flavonoids exhibit antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic, and metabolic effects. All of which may contribute to chocolate’s cardio-protection.

According to this latest study, “plain dark chocolate could represent an effective and cost effective strategy for the prevention of cardiovascular disease in people with metabolic syndrome (and no diabetes).” The study used data on 2,013 participants from the Australian Diabetes Obesity and Lifestyles study. All of the patients had metabolic syndrome. But none of them had full-blown diabetes or cardiovascular disease. And none of them were taking antihypertensive medications.

They used chocolate that was 60 to 70% cacao. Which means the rest was sugar, other “solids,” and emulsifiers.

My question is, why use junk when it’s so easy these days to get 100% cacao? (Or at least close to it.) That way, you get the biggest dose of those healthy polyphenols possible. They get lost when the cacao is processed and diluted.

Yes, pure cacao by itself is bitter. But if you flavor it with a bit of stevia? Trust me, it’s delicious.

The other part of the most recent chocolate-related study found that chocolate can prevent heart attacks and strokes in people with metabolic syndrome.

The researchers made their conclusions based on the “best-case scenario.” Which involved all the patients eating dark chocolate daily for a decade. Assuming that was the case, they believe 70 nonfatal strokes and heart attacks could be prevented for every 10,000 people. They also believe that daily chocolate consumption could prevent 15 cardiovascular-related deaths per 10,000 people.

And guess what else? It was way cheaper than drug therapy. The cost of the chocolate to save those lives was just $42 per person per year.

Not bad for a substance everyone is addicted to anyway.

I’m thrilled with these findings because they prove what I’ve been saying all along. Getting healthy doesn’t have to be a tedious, joyless chore. We have the ability and knowledge now to make interventions that are cheap and that people will actually enjoy.

If only food manufacturers would stop using poison (sugar) and start using stevia instead. Then we’d have the perfect heart remedy available in every supermarket, convenience store, and candy shop in the country. Until then, buy the pure, unsweetened cacao and make it yourself.

One last thing to note: Of course, the authors felt the need to stress that the effects of dark chocolate consumption on blood pressure and  cardiovascular risk weren’t as profound as those of drugs. Maybe not. But I bet there are way less side effects.

“The effectiveness and cost effectiveness of dark chocolate of dark chocolate consumption as prevention therapy in people at high risk of cardiovascular disease: best case scenario analysis using a Markov model,” BMJ 2012; 344: e3657