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Monday, June 26, 2000

It's true! Chocolate is good for you!

Staff writer

The academic name for cacao beans is Theobroma cacao, which means "God's food." They are said to have first been found in pre-Columbian Mexico, where they were valued as an elixir of life among the royalty. The native Mexicans believed that with one block of crushed chocolate, one could work five to six hours without stopping. They carried it when traveling in the mountains as emergency food in case of accident. This is because chocolate is nutritious, full of such minerals as iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc.

Eating chocolate is often associated with negative health implications such as acne, weight gain or tooth decay. Recent investigations, however, have proven that these myths are greatly overstated, and that in fact chocolate is rather good for one's health.

First, according to two studies (one done by the Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the other by the U.S. Naval Academy), chocolate has no connection to acne. Other experts say that acne is not directly linked to diet.

Second, chocolate is not the cause of cavities or tooth decay; on the contrary, cocoa butter in the chocolate is actually good for the teeth. It coats the teeth and prevents plaque from forming.

Last, of course, an overload of chocolate might cause weight gain, but so would any other food with a certain amount of sugar in it. Therefore, one cannot simply connect chocolate with weight gain.

The cocoa boom came in 1995 when a television program reported that cocoa lowers cholesterol level. People suddenly began demanding cocoa, and it sold out immediately in stores. In the years following this fad, however, investigations by experts have helped us understand more about how the consumption of cocoa and chocolate (both made from the same ingredients) affects our health.

One of the most striking findings was that cacao polyphenol, which is found in chocolate, can be a protection against hardening of the arteries, cancer and stomach ulcers, and promotes resistance to stress and allergies such as hay fever.

Red wine and green tea are known to contain other types of polyphenols, but four or five years ago it was realized that polyphenols are found in chocolate in higher concentrations. A survey done by Japan Food Research Laboratories showed that chocolate contains more polyphenols than either green tea or red wine. Antioxidant substances such as vitamin E restrict the actions of activated oxygen, but polyphenols were found to be more effective in a study done by Meiji Seika Kaisha, Ltd.

"We now know that antioxidants exist in cacao," says Kazuo Kondo, a professor at the Institute of Environmental Science for Human Life, Ochanomizu University. "Still, even if that's true, we can't just eat as much chocolate as we want and think that chocolate on its own has this effect."

Kondo says that research is still going on into how much chocolate is needed for the right effect. He also notes that different polyphenols have different effects, so combining cacao polyphenols with other types may be a good idea.

An experiment done on rats by Professor Hiroshi Takeda of Tokyo Medical College showed that cacao polyphenols may act on humans to prevent stress or promote recovery from stress.

In the experiment, rats were placed in a stressful environment and then fed with food including polyphenol. First, healthy rats were divided into two groups; one group was raised using food with polyphenol and the other without polyphenol. After that, they were all shut in an environment in which none of them could move freely. Results showed that rats that were given polyphenol were less affected by the stress than those that weren't given polyphenol.

Further study indicated that when cacao polyphenol was given several times to rats that were under continuous stress, they were more able to recover from the stress.

In still other studies, the distinct aroma in chocolate has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the brain, resulting in the appearance of alpha waves, which appear when the brain is relaxed.

One positive effect of chocolate undoubtedly lies in the sugar content, which is said to sharpen concentration. Glucose, a type of sugar, is the main source of energy for the brain. According to Meiji Seika, a car-driving simulation testing the effect of glucose showed it improved the concentration levels of the drivers. A liquid including sugar was given to one group and one without sugar to another group. After they drank it, they were made to drive. No difference was observed when they drove in low gear, but there was a distinct difference when driving in high gear: The group that drank the sugary liquid were better drivers.

So it seems a piece of chocolate in breaks from study or work may be helpful in restoring concentration.

"Although all this research may give us a positive understanding of the effects of chocolate," says Kondo, "the important thing is to ingest it as a regular part of our diet, taking into account the total number of calories absorbed during the day.

"Bear in mind that a cup of cocoa is about 130 to 150 kilocalories, and a bar of chocolate close to 300 kilocalories."

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