By Ed Edelson
TUESDAY, May 27 (HealthDay News) -- All the talk about chocolate being good for your health is starting to get serious. Mars Inc., of chocolate bar fame, has established a scientific division.
And a group of researchers, some in Germany, others with the new Mars division known as Symbioscience, has just published a report showing that an enriched hot cocoa beverage can improve blood flow in people with type 2 diabetes.
"The study is the first of its kind in terms of its rigor, as well as the population studied," said Harold Schmitz, chief science officer of Mars. "Diabetics treated as well as they could be treated with pharmaceutical intervention did see, on average, a 30 percent improvement in vascular function."
The study, published in the June 3 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, had 41 adults with type 2 diabetes drink cocoa enriched with flavanols, which are natural compounds found in some fruits and vegetables and in chocolate -- especially the dark kind. Flavanols are believed to improve blood flow by increasing the production of nitric oxide, which causes arteries to relax.
After an initial trial of cocoa containing various amounts of flavanols, the participants were assigned to drink cocoa with either 321 milligrams or 25 milligrams of flavanols per serving three times a day for 30 days. The researchers then tested the participants for "flow-mediated dilation," the ability of the arteries to expand in response to the body's demand for more blood and oxygen.
Before the study began, the brachial artery in the upper arms of the participants expanded only 3.3 percent on average. After 30 days of the high-flavanol cocoa, the expansion was 5.8 percent after the beverage was drunk. No increase was seen in the people who consumed low-flavanol cocoa.
"This is a nice study, confirming and extending previous work that cocoa compounds can enhance vasodilation in humans to diabetes patients," said Henriette van Praag, an investigator in the U.S. National Institute on Aging's Neuroplasticity and Behavior Unit.
It wasn't a perfect study, she added. "The study would have been better if they had tested the individual flavanols they suggest are responsible for the effect separately," van Praag said.
Angela Kurtz, a nutritionist at New York University Medical Center, also had some mild criticism of the study, centering on the caloric content of cocoa. "Those 170 extra calories in the cocoa would promote obesity," she said. "You would have to omit some other calorie sources that match that amount to prevent weight gain."
Still, Kurtz said, "The bottom line is that diabetics who have a poor vascular system can benefit from something that gives pleasure at the same time it helps health. Cocoa increases the amount of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals."
Schmitz said more research is needed to substantiate the findings. "Clearly, the next step is a long study with enough subjects to clearly demonstrate there is a benefit of flavanol-enriched beverages for diabetics," he said.
Mars has been sponsoring research on the health benefits of chocolate products for years, Schmitz said. "We've published a lot of peer-reviewed papers, well over 100," he said.
The commercial possibilities aren't being overlooked, Schmitz said. "We have a number of products in development," he said. "Symbiosciences has been working on some. I'm not at liberty to discuss what is in our pipeline."
For more on the health benefits of chocolate, visit the University of Michigan.