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Eating chocolate may help your heart - U.S. study
WASHINGTON, Feb 18 (Reuters) - New research shows that eating chocolate may not only lift your spirits, it may also be good for your heart.

Providing good news to chocoholics, researchers at a major scientific conference said on Friday that a preliminary study had shown chocolate to have a positive impact on cardiovascular health.

"I think the message here is that our data suggests that one should view chocolate as part of a healthy diet," Carl Keen, professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, told a news briefing.

Keen said that his study had looked at moderate chocolate usage and that the side effects of "acute" consumption were not known. White chocolate did not have the same apparent beneficial effect on the heart as regular chocolate did.

Keen, who is to present his findings to a meeting in Washington of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said chocolate appeared to improve blood and platelet function, which were important for general cardiovascular health. Platelets are small blood particles that play a major role in clotting.

Chocolate is believed to contain a high level of flavonoids, naturally occurring plant compounds that inhibit platelet activity, boosting blood flow, Keen said.

Chocolate worked much like aspirin in promoting a healthy heart, the study found. "But the effects we're seeing are not as robust as aspirin, and so I'm not saying people should throw away their bottles of aspirin," Keen said.

In his preliminary study, participants were given a strong cup of cocoa -- about one tablespoon of cocoa powder with warm water and sugar. For up to six hours after drinking the cocoa, "platelet activation and aggregation" decreased, he said.

REACTION CUT ACROSS SEXES

Keen said the early study looked at about 40 people, all of them healthy adults between 25 and 45. Men and women responded the same way.

Another study, by Cesar Fraga of the University of Buenos Aires, examined the anti-oxidant effects of naturally occurring compounds in chocolate known as procyanidins.

Participants in the study munched semisweet chocolate baking bits. The researchers found that chocolate led to a rise in absorption of some of the procyanidins, as well as an increase in blood antioxidant capacity, which could help slow the progression of heart disease.

Using chocolate as a medicine is not a new concept, researcher Louis Grivetti said. The popular comfort food was first used by ancient, colonial and early modern physicians to restore flesh or produce weight gain in emaciated patients.

It was also prescribed for a broad range of ailments, from apathy to poor digestion.

"Thus we see that chocolate is more than a beverage, more than a confection and more than the sum of its interesting phytochemicals (plant chemicals). Chocolate is history," Grivetti said from the Department of Nutrition at the University of California, Davis.

Most of the new research was sponsored by chocolate maker Mars, which said it was encouraged by the early results.

"Additional research is needed to further assess the potential cardiovascular health benefits of chocolate," Mars group research manager Harold Schmitz said.

Chocolate consumption in the United States lags far behind that in some other countries. Industry figures for 1999 show that Americans eat 12 pounds (5.4 kg) of the substance a year, compared with up to 35 pounds (15.9 kg) for Europeans.

 
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