August news soundbites hinted that chocolate may help both build resistance to strokes and delay the onset of dementia. That sounds like good news. So exactly what lies behind these headlines?
The first story comes from a substantial research project carried out in Sweden over a ten-year period. It is about to be published in detail in a specialist journal called Neurology. Reports say the study covered 37,000 men, amongst whom there were 2000 incidences of stroke over the period. It covered around 350 life style items. For our purposes, the key finding was that the quarter of the sample with the highest chocolate consumption had a 23% lower rate of stroke than the quarter with the lowest chocolate consumption.
The dementia story may come from a study recently published in another specialist journal, Hypertension. Researchers followed 90 seniors with mild cognitive impairment over an 8-week period. The 90 were given a daily cocoa drink with high, medium or low amounts of antioxidants called flavanols. Those on the high or medium levels outperformed those on lower levels in tests of attention and other mental skills. (Mars Inc sponsored the study.)
Predictably, we are warned by one medically-qualified Alzheimer’s disease researcher that “you can’t say ‘eat chocolate very day’. People need to be very careful about making broad-based dietary changes based on one study.”
Despite this, the two studies reinforce other research findings about the potential benefits within a balanced diet of moderate intake of suitable chocolate – especially dark chocolate with high cocoa content and minimum adulteration with less healthy additives. Chocolate contains anti-oxidants called polyphenols. Dark chocolate and cocoa have particularly high concentrations of a sub-class called flavanols (also found in red grapes and tea). Chocolate is, of course, in its natural state a plant-derived food.
So perhaps there’s enough here to allow us to feel good, not guilty, about that piece of delicious dark chocolate, or a warming cup of cocoa on a winter’s evening. Enjoy, but don’t over-indulge.