Feel guilty when enjoying a nice cup of hot cocoa? You shouldn’t — and here’s why.
In the early 1990’s, a physician and researcher at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg, observed something very interesting. He noticed that the Kuna Indians, the indigenous residents of the San Bias Islands of Panama, rarely developed high blood pressure — even as they aged. Studies indicated that neither salt intake nor obesity was a factor in this seeming immunity. Moreover, when the islanders moved to the mainland, their incidence for hypertension soared to typical levels, so their protection from hypertension was probably not due to genetics.
What was their secret? Hollenberg noticed the San Bias Island’s Kuna routinely drank about five cups of locally grown, minimally processed, high-flavanol cocoa each day.
Hollenberg wanted to test his theory, so he gave his study subjects cocoa with either high or low amounts of flavanols. Those who drank the high-flavanol cocoa had more nitric oxide activity than those drinking the low-flavanol cocoa. The connection between the ability of the nitric oxide to relax the blood vessels and improve circulation, and thus prevent hypertension, seemed obvious.
Hollenberg is still continuing his investigation, and he recently completed a pilot study which found that subjects who drank a cup of high-flavanol cocoa had a resulting increased flow of blood to the brain that averaged 33 percent.
Another interesting study looked at the blood flow effects of high-flavanol cocoa compared with low-dose aspirin. The study examined how blood platelets reacted to a flavanol-rich cocoa drink versus a blood-thinning dose of 8-mg aspirin. It seems that the 20- to 40-year-olds who participated in this study enjoyed similar blood-thinning results from both the cocoa and the low-dose aspirin. It must be noted that the effects of the flavanol-rich cocoa were more transitory than those of the aspirin.
Need another reason to curl up by the fire with a mug of cocoa? In a recent study, researchers at Cornell University found that a mug of hot cocoa has nearly twice the antioxidants of a glass of red wine and up to three times those found in a cup of green tea. Make your cocoa with 1 % low-fat milk, nonfat milk, or soymilk and sweeten it with minimal sugar. Avoid cocoa mixes because they’re high in sugar or artificial sweeteners, and some contain trans fats.
Something to watch out for: Dutch-process cocoa is cocoa powder that has been treated with alkaline compounds to neutralize the natural acids. It’s slightly milder than natural cocoa, but it has lower levels of flavanols so, for health purposes, stick with natural cocoa.