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Monday, June 30, 2008

Red wine with that burger, please

A group of researchers in Israel discovered that a meal of grilled turkey burger resulted in a lot of oxidizing chemicals in rats' stomachs. But they could counteract that problem by feeding the rats some red wine concentrate with the meals. This concentrate was very high in catechins, the same anti-oxidants found in cocoa. They found that the antioxidants in food started doing their good work right in the stomach, and concluded that there is an "important benefit of consuming dietary polyphenols during the meal."

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Cocoa after every meal?

As I learned while writing a post two weeks ago, a lot of damage to your arteries can get done right after a meal. When your blood sugar goes way up after a meal, the insulin level follows, and after that your triglycerides go up, and your blood gets "thicker". At the same time, free radicals form, which can cause cholesterol to oxidize, which can lead to arterial plaque. And inflammation can cause plaques to rupture. A ruptured plaque is what caused Tim Russert's heart attack. A ruptured plaque could just as well cause a blockage in an artery of the neck or head, which could cause a stroke...

So, to reduce the risk of a heart attack, it seems like it would be a good idea to reduce plaque formation, and reduce the risk. And, if a lot of this dangerous oxidation and inflammation is happening right after meals that cause a rise in insulin, it would seem that anything you could do to reduce blood sugar or insulin or high blood pressure or triglycerides or inflammation or oxidation would help you a lot. Which is why I wonder, when I read the abstracts of some of the clinical trials of cocoa, chocolate, and cinnamon, exactly when everyone is eating their chocolate. Because it seems to me that the time you need the anti-oxidant the most is when you've got the worst threat of oxidation. And the time you need the insulin mimetic in cinnamon the most is right when you're getting that spike in blood sugar. The time you need something to relax your blood vessels in just when they're getting tense. That seems like a fair series of hypotheses.

I'd like to see someone do a meta-analysis of the papers to see if there is any correlation between when the particiapants are consuming their cocoa or cinnamon supplements and how much effect they get from it. Maybe the difference wouldn't show up in a short-term study.

But, if bad metabolism after meals really increases the risk of coronary artery disease, then maybe a long-term study of coronary artery disease progression and cocoa consumption would turn something up. And, if a little red wine with a meal can counter the oxidation chemicals in a meal, then why not a cup of cocoa, containing 200mg polyphenols after the meal? And why not a little cinnamon after the meal?

I'd like to see a clinical study of the effect of having 200mg of polyphenols during or directly after each of the main meals of the day. Three meals, 600mg in a day. Still less than the Kuna people drink, but quite a lot none the less.

Makes me wish I lived near one of these groups doing cocoa or cinnamon studies. Wouldn't it something to get involved in designing one of those experiments?

Because either cocoa and cinnamon are the greatest discovery since sliced bread (and to be highly recommended to anyone who regularly eats bread or other easily-digested carbohydrates) or they aren't. And I'd really like to know which it's going to be.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Good for your heart is good for your head

Take care of your heart if you want to stay smart. Heart disease is bad for your brain. If you can reduce your risk of heart disease, you can reduce your risk of cognitive decline. I just figured that out this week. It was Bix's consideration of cognitive decline in heart disease patients that prompted me to put two and two together...

Lately, I've been focusing on how cinnamon, cocoa, and fish oil are good for the heart. I've been ignoring information about how they're supposed to help your brain stay sharp as you age. Is there a connection? Well, if your coronary arteries are clogging up, other arteries are probably clogging up, too. Like the ones in your head.

Bypass surgery can save your life, and the mild cognitive damage, it causes is usually temporary. But heart surgery can't fix the arteries in your brain. Researchers followed seniors with vascular disease for several years. They all showed cognitive decline over that time, whether or not they had surgery. Seniors with vascular disease all did worse than heart-healthy seniors.

So an anti-inflammatory diet full of choices that improve cholesterol and blood sugar isn't just good for your heart. It's good for your head, too.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Cinnamon Chocolates for your heart

Cassia Cinnamon is an even more concentrated source of flavanols than cocoa. So, if, like the Kuna, you wanted 900mg of flavanols to your diet, you could eat 2 1/2 tablespoons of cocoa. or only 3 teaspoons of cinnamon. But you shouldn't eat 3 teaspoons of cinnamon, because Cassia cinnamon contains coumarin. The German government has decided .1mg of coumarin per kg of body weight per day is safe. There are about 2.8mg of coumarin in every gram of Cassia Cinnamon. If you weigh over 124 pounds, you should be safe with 2g (1/2 tsp) of cinnamon per day, as long as you aren't eating any other foods with coumarin in them. If you weigh 185, you can tolerate 3 g (3/4 teaspoon)...

Here's a recipe that's not exactly haute cuisine. It makes four servings of a slightly sweet, strongly cinnamon/cocoa patty. It is not smooth like fine chocolate, because it is made with cocoa powder and cinnamon. All that conching destroys flavanols, anyway. One quarter of this recipe has about 500mg of flavanols, including 3/4 teaspoon of cinnnamon per serving, which provides over 200mg of flavanols and 8.4 mg of coumarin. It should be perfectly safe for someone weighing over 190 pounds who isn't eating other sources of coumarin or other blood thinners. If you weigh less, you can divide the recipe into more, smaller servings to get less cinnamon and flavanols. Of course, you would want to discuss this with your doctor. If you'd prefer to leave out the cinnamon altogether, try the recipe for Cocoa Chocolate Patties

Chocolate, Cocoa, and Cinnamon Patties

Recipe By: Family Nutritionist
Serving Size: 4
Main Ingredient:

-= Ingredients =-
1 oz Baking chocolate ; 100% cacao, unsweetened
3 teaspoon Cinnamon
4 teaspoon Honey
3 tablespoon Cocoa powder

-= Instructions =-
Gently warm baking chocolate until you can stir it.
Stir in the cocoa, cinnamon and honey. Allow to cool to a dough, then divide into 4 pieces and form into balls or patties. Cool on the baking chocolate wrapper.

Do not take with milk, butter, or other dairy products.

Serving: .11 cups (24g), Calories: 81: Fat: 5g : Sodium: 3mg
Protein: 2g, NetCarbs: 9, K: 194mg
SatFat: 3g, PolyFat: 0g, MonoFat: 2g, Chol: 0mg
TotCarbs: 14g, Fiber: 5g, Sugars: 6g
Calories: 56.0% from fat, 69.1% from carbohydrates 02.5% from protein

NFCS: 6.54g Cinnamon: 3.0g : Fats: .84: Sweets: 0.4
PA: 512.35 mg, 1-3 mers: 128.45 mg

German government guidelines for safe daily consumption of Cassia Cinnamon, assuming no other sources of coumarin in the diet. Talk to your doctor to discuss what is safe for you.

Body Weight(pounds)Cinnamon (g)Cinnamon(tsp)flavanols(mg)

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Food Choices that improve cholesterol and blood sugar.

A review of studies on how what we eat affects our bodies right after a meal says that, when you eat too much fat or highly-processed carbohydrates in one meal, your blood sugar and triglycerides go up quickly. Your body can't metabolize this excess very well, and you wind up with free radicals, oxidative stress, inflammation, and a stress response. You will have immediate increases in blood pressure, oxidation of LDL cholesterol, C-reactive protein production, and risk of blood clotting. This can go on for longer than four hours after a meal, at which time you'll be nearly ready for another meal....

Post-prandial "glucose excursions" are associated with risk of cardiovascular disease (atherosclerosis or hardening or narrowing of the arteries), which can lead to a heart attack, a stroke, or cognitive decline (where you have more and more trouble with memory and alertness, and become confused more often) -- all because of poor circulation to your heart and brain. On top of that, those spikes in blood sugar and insulin will lead to excess fat deep in your belly (called visceral fat), which increases your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.

The good news is that most people can slow down the rate at which these bad things happen, or even stop them, just by making a few changes in how they eat. You can probably reduce your risk of heart disease or even lose belly fat.

Eat Better Carbs
Cut down on white bread, white rice, and white potatoes. Substitute pasta, whole unmilled grains (like brown rice and bulgar), and even pasta. Avoid highly-processed foods that have a lot of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, white flour, and processed starch. Then substitute more vegetables like broccoli and spinach for some of the grains and potatoes. Eat "good carb" fruits like citrus, cherries, and berries.

I tried this one out last Friday. I made a pasta salad, but added quite a lot of chopped vegetables. Little bits of leftover grilled asparagus, red peppers, broccoli, onion, some fresh herbs from the garden, a little carrot and celery, a few peas, and some small red beans. It was colorful and delicious, and there was less room in the bowl for pasta.

Eat better fats
Avoid trans fats and saturated fats. Use modest amounts of olive oil or nut oils, and get some fish oils for their omega-3 fatty acids. The omega-3 fatty acids improve the after-meal triglycerides and reduce inflammation and risk of heart disease.

I'm working on adding one meal of fish per week to my family's menu, and maybe working up to two meals a week. Tuna sandwiches and tuna in the pasta salad go over pretty well.

Eat foods that slow digestion
Like nuts, vinegar, and cinnamon, and high-fiber foods like lettuce, spinach, and broccoli. A nice big serving of green salad dressed with vinegar and a little olive oil can lower your after-meal blood sugar by 25% or more and help you to feel more full. And a very small serving of nuts gives you antioxidants and decreases after-meal oxidative damage.

So I've tried having a small handful of plain, unsalted almonds as an evening snack, as a substitute for a small snack of pretzels. I pack low-sugar fruit cups in the kids' lunches instead of pudding cups, and include a bundle of carrot sticks. I try to serve a green salad or (when I can get them) a fresh beet salad dressed in vinegar. I've also found the kids are less likely to make faces at cooked greens if I serve them with vinegar.

Eat a little lean protein
At each meal to keep your metabolism up. This includes egg whites, fish, game meat (and other very lean red meats), skinless poultry breast, and nonfat dairy protein. They can decrease after-meal inflammation and help with losing weight.

Does nonfat milk on the quick oats at breakfast count?

Eat modest-sized servings
So your body can handle the load. Foods that help you feel full will help. They authors recommend vinegar and high-fiber foods.

We actually bring measuring cups to the table to help with this.

Get 30 minutes or more per day of moderate or stronger physical activity. Even light exercise, if you keep up with it daily, can help. 90 minutes of exercise within 2 hours before or after a meal can cut your after-meal blood sugar and triglycerides in half.

Here's where I could really help myself some more, although the rest of my family doesn't seem to have a lot of problem. I think I'm spending too much time looking for health information and writing about it, and need to spend more time weeding the garden.

Keep a Healthy Weight
Strive for a waist size less than half your height.

Foods that reduce inflammation include fish oil and other omega-3 fatty acid supplements (since they reduce blood triglycerides), deeply-colored fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and cinnamon.

I think I've been doing a pretty good job in the last couple of years improving my family's diet. In the next few months, I'm going to put some focus on continuing to improve our carbohydrates, since there's a big benefit there. And I'll continue exploring the anti-oxidants. I really like the idea of improving my health with cocoa and cinnamon.

Last edited (corrected typos) 29 Oct 2008

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Anti-Inflammatory Diet Good for the Heart

An article featured in January's Journal of the American College of Cardiology says blood sugar spikes after a high-glycemic index meal causes a stress response, inflammation, raised triglycerides, blood thickening, and blood vessel tightening. This is called "postprandial dysmetabolism" and it isn't good for your heart. In fact, it's "predictor of future cardiovascular events". The authors of the paper suggest some dietary changes that will improve this situation right away. The PDF is available for download ($4.95) and a summary is available at Medscape.

Some of the highlights from the Medscape summary:

  • Eat high-fiber meals and whole grains; get some protein at each meal; avoid white flour
  • Avoid highly-processed foods and beverages containing sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, white flour, or trans fats.
  • "Berries, dark chocolate, red wine, tea, and pomegranates" reduce inflammation after meals.
  • If you must eat a high-glycemic-index meal, seasoning it with "cinnamon slows gastric emptying and reduces [after-meal blood-sugar spikes]"
  • Eat nuts 5 times a week after meals
  • Season meals with vinegar to lower your blood sugar and feel more full.
  • While you are exercising, your blood sugar and triglycerides drop almost immediately.

The abstract also mentions fish oil, but the Medscape summary doesn't have anything more to say about it or omega-3 fatty acids...

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

How Much Cocoa do the Kuna Drink?

I finally came across a piece of information I've been looking for -- how much flavanoid do the Kuna get from their daily cocoa. Right in the abstract of a 2007 paper from NK Hollenberg (who has done a lot of cocoa research in conjunction with the MARS(TM) nutritional research team), it says that the Kuna living in the San Blas islands get more than 900 mg/day of flavonoids. So if cocoa flavanols really are the factor preventing hypertension, heart attacks, diabetes, and cancer in the San Blas, then the effective dose must be 900mg/day or less. That is potentially a lot of cocoa....

The researchers observed that Kuna populations living in the San Blas had strikingly lower incidence of death from heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes millitus than Kuna living on the Panama mainland.

Of course, cocoa consumption is not the only difference between the two Kuna populations and the information on their death certificates. The authors propose several other potential contributing factors:

  • Differential diagnosis -- medical care is not as good on the islands, so some cases of these diseases may have been missed on the islands furthest from hospitals and clinics
  • Stress is slightly lower in the islands
  • There might be other dietary differences besides cocoa between island and mainland Kuna
  • Island inhabitants may have a higher level of physical activity.
  • The air and water might be more polluted on the mainland, especially in and near the city.

How to eat more chocolate for your heart -- and how to drink cocoa black

Does Flavanol Intake Influence Mortality from Nitric Oxide-Dependent Processes? Ischemic Heart Disease, Stroke, Diabetes Mellitus, and Cancer in Panama. Vicente Bayard, Fermina Chamorro, Jorge Motta, and Norman K. Hollenberg. Int J Med Sci. 2007; 4(1): 53–58.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Any-bean hummus good for your heart

Beans -- they're good for your heart. And they all make delicious hummus. Use Lima, kidney, or black beans to make hummus of many different colors and lots of soluble fiber for your heart. Even more soluble fiber than chickpeas.

Hummus makes a good dip for vegetables, and a great sandwich spread. Try a tablespoon or two in a whole wheat pita with some lettuce and tomato. I found a Black Bean hummus recipe in the bigoven archive. It features olive oil, high in mono-unsaturated fat. You could reduce the oil by half if you wished, and increase the lime juice to keep it moist...

Black Bean Hummus

Try this recipe with any kind of beans, canned or home-made in the pressure cooker.

Recipe By:
Serving Size: 8
Cuisine: Uncategorized
Main Ingredient: Beans
Categories: Vegetarian, Vegan, Summer, Boating, Appetizers

-= Ingredients =-
16 oz Black beans
1 tb Tahini
3 tb Olive oil
1 Lime juice
2 clove garlic
Salt & pepper ; to taste
1 ts Ground cumin

-= Instructions =-
In a food processor, combine all the ingredients & process till smooth. Cover & refrigerate till ready to use. Bring to room temperature before serving.
From Geminis MASSIVE MealMaster collection at www.synapse.com/~gemini

(Nutritional Analysis assumes beans cooked without salt, no additional salt added)
Serving: .27 cups (71g), Calories: 136: Fat: 6g : Sodium: 204mg
Protein: 6g, NetCarbs: 10, K: 227mg
SatFat: 1g, PolyFat: 1g, MonoFat: 4g, Chol: 0mg
TotCarbs: 15g, Fiber: 5g, Sugars: 0g
Calories: 42.0% from fat, 29.4% from carbohydrates 04.4% from protein

DASH: Vegetables: 0.0: Fruits/Juices: 0.0: Dairy: 0.0: Grains: 0.0: Meat/Fish: 0.0: Seeds: 0.8: Fats: 1.1: Sweets: 0.0
USDA: Vegetables: 0.0: Fruits/Juices: 0.0: Dairy: 0.0: Grains: 0.0: Meat/Fish/Seeds: 0.8: Fats: 1.1: Sweets: 0.0

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Does Chocolate Lower Blood Pressure?

There has been so much attention paid lately to the effect of cocoa on blood pressure. These studies mostly seem to show a relationship between the consumption of cocoa flavanols and blood pressure. All except for one US study. Now, in a study with funding from Mars (maker of CocoaPro(TM) and CocoaVia(TM) products), researchers observed "blood pressure, heart rate, and glycemic control were unaffected", even at levels of 963mg of cocoa flavanol per day.

That would seem to be a disappointing result..., and you might wonder why the researchers would go to the trouble and expense to get it published. But actually, in this 10-subject "feasibility" study, the diabetic subjects experienced 30% improvement in Flow-Mediated Dialation. This means their arteries were more able to relax, according to a press release from Mars. And any improvement in blood vessel function is good news for diabetics, who are at high risk for heart attacks and strokes. And, according to a Science Daily Article, "blood vessel function went from severely impaired to normal." Which is an enormous improvement.

But why, since cocoa flavanols have been shown to cause blood vessels to relax, doesn't this study show improvements in blood pressure? And why have earlier studies (such as those I mentioned here) shown significant improvements in blood pressure? And why are the people of the autonomous Kuna comarcas of Panama apparantly immune to high blood pressure? Is it the 100% cacao beverage they drink all day long, or something else?

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Is Cinnamon good for the heart?

Cassia Cinnamon (the least expensive species of cinnamon sold in the US) like chocolate, is full of flavanols, which can lower blood pressure. In fact, Cassia has a lot of active compounds in it. Some are beneficial, while some are not. Some researchers have reported such dramatic results that you would certainly want to talk to your doctor before adding large quantities of cinnamon to your diet.

  • Water-soluble compounds: flavanols, proanthocyanidins and oxidized proanthocyanidins
    • flavanols and proanthocyanidins found in cinnamon might lower blood pressure and improve circulation. (Or it might not)
    • Proanthocyanidins, when mixed with water in a basic solution, will oxidize. Some of these oxidized proanthocyanidins might improve insulin sensitivity
    • methylhydroxychalcone polymer (MHCP) one polyphenol compound, found in several cinnamon species, has stimulate insulin-like responses in living cell experiments.
    • Some other water-soluble compounds could slow down the progression of alzheimer's disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  • Alcohol-soluble compounds: estrogen-like compounds that might help prevent osteoporosis.
  • Oil-soluble compounds: coumarin and other essential oil componants

The big problem with cheap and tasty cassia cinnamon is... coumarin, a potent blood thinner, from which the prescription blood thinner Warfarin (known as Coumadin and by other brand names) was derived. In addition to thinning the blood, it can put a strain on the liver, even causing liver damage which is, fortunately, reversible. Coumarin has been used since the 1880's to give perfumes that "green" scent of new-mown hay, and it is found in other plants common around the world. Cassia Cinnamon contains 4% essential oil, of which 7% is coumarin. So it is .28% coumarin. If you eat 1 gram of cinnamon (1/4 teaspoon) of cassia a day, you would get 2.8mg of coumarin The German government recommends a tolerable daily input of no more than .1 mg Coumarin per kg bodyweight, so a person weighing 110 pounds (50 kg) could afford to eat 5mg Coumarin (1.78g of cassia) per day. It is probably a good idea to stay within this safe daily limit for powdered cinnamon.

Since coumarin is not soluble in water, scientist in the lab of leading cinnamon researcher Richard Anderson have made hot water extracts (tisanes) to leave the toxic coumarin behind. They used basic solutions to help dissolve the compounds that help diabetics the most MHCP. Then they found out a polyphenol is important for improving blood sugar. For lowering blood pressure, the flavanols and proanthocyanidins are most important. And these break down in a basic solution. So, for lowering blood pressure, plain hot water might be better. If you were to add 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon to 1 cup of hot water, and let it steep for a while before filtering through a coffee filter, you would get most of the polyphenols (these researchers, using grape powder, used a centrifuge to recover over 90% of polyphenols from their powdered sample; you'd probably get less through a coffee filter).

So -- is cinnamon good for your heart? The answer seems to be: yes and no. Up to 1/4 teaspoon daily of cassia cinnamon might be risk-free for most adults. It might or might not help bring down blood pressure and/or help improve cholesterol or diabetes. Larger amounts might be bad for you because of the coumarin. You might get the benefit of the flavanols by making tea from your cassia. Or you can use a water-extracted cinnamon extract, like those researchers did.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

How to Eat More Chocolate for your heart

"Eat more chocolate" sounds wonderful. But it's a bit vague. What kind? How much? When? With what? As the designated nutritional expert of the family, it's my job to figure this out.

I know how to eat chocolate. I know how to eat more chocolate. I know what happens if you eat an entire pound of chocolate the day after Valentine's day. And I know that the 100g (3.5 oz) candy bar used in the famous European cocoa studies contains 480 Calories (2008 kilojoules), mostly from sugar and cocoa fat. Not exactly what most of us need...

The Kuna people of the San Blas islands drink 5 8-oz cups a day of ground cacao boiled in water, which seems to make them immune to high blood pressure. But how much cacao? Nobody's saying. Maybe the answer is in this paper that I haven't paid to read because I'm not convinced it has what I'm looking for.

Three famous European studies used the Ritter Sport 100g Halbbitter bar, which contains 500mg of polyphenols. Younger hypertensives saw the most improvement on this diet -- an average of nearly 12 points systolic, 8 ½ points diastolic. Older hypertensives saw smaller improvements at the some dose. Other studies showed that less cocoa means less improvement. The one US study showed no improvement at a dose of 294mg per day. No clues why this study showed different results from all the others.

I figured 500mg of polyphenols seems like a good starting point. There are about 200mg of polyphenols in a half-ounce of 100% cacao (baking chocolate), and 74 calories (mostly from the cocoa butter). There are also about 200mg of polyphenols in a tablespoon of natural cocoa, and only about 12 to 20 calories, depending on the fat content of the cocoa.

Here are some ways to get more cocoa into your diet with out so much fat and sugar:

  • Stir a tablespoon of cocoa into boiling or near-boiling water. For a strong and bitter but muddy-looking drink, very different from Swiss Miss.
  • Substitute milk for some of the water (Recent studies suggest that milk does not affect the absorption of flavanols, though it might affect their metabolism).
  • Stir a tablespoon of cocoa into a bowl of oatmeal. The the carbohydrates may speed up flavanol absorption.
  • Or mix some cocoa with melted baking chocolate and a bit of honey to create a confection. The recipe below gives you 1/2 ounce cacoa and 1 1/2 tablespoons of cacao in every serving. Because it uses cocoa powder, it is not as creamy as chocolate, which is conched until very smooth (and lower in bitter flavanols).

Chocolate Cocoa Patties

Recipe By: Family Nutritionist
Serving Size: 4

-= Ingredients =-
1 oz Baking chocolate ; 100% cacao, unsweetened
4 teaspoon Honey
3 tablespoon Cocoa powder

-= Instructions =-
Gently warm baking chocolate until you can stir it. Stir in the cocoa and honey. Form into 4 balls or patties. Cool and eat one per day.

Serving: .1 cups (22g), Calories: 77: Fat: 5g : Sodium: 3mg
Protein: 2g, NetCarbs: 8, K: 186mg
SatFat: 3g, PolyFat: 0g, MonoFat: 2g, Chol: 0mg
TotCarbs: 12g, Fiber: 4g, Sugars: 6g
Calories: 57.0% from fat, 41.6% from carbohydrates 02.6% from protein

NFCS: 6.54g Cinnamon: 0.0g : Fats: 0.84: Sweets: 0.4
PA: 269.1 mg, 1-3 mers: 82.48 mg

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Right Chocolate for your heart

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree. These seeds are rich in flavonoids (aka bioflavonoids), a class of antioxidant polyphenol. Along with some flavonols like quercetin, cacao seeds contain a lot of flavanols like catechin and short chains of flavanols called Proanthocyanidins (aka procyanidins).

Researchers soon concluded that cocoa flavanols (catechins and proanthocyanidins) are responsible for the Kuna peoples' apparant immunity to high blood pressure and began measuring the flavanol content of many foods. Cinnamon (8%), cocoa(.7%-5%), sorghum bran(4%), and grapeseed(3.5%) turn out to be the foods with the most flavanols, with baking chocolate(1.6%) not far behind. Dark (.2%) and milk (.1%) chocolate, with less than one tenth the flavanol content of cocoa, are a bit further down the list.

So it can matter which chocolate you choose.... Different varieties of cacao plant make beans with different amounts of flavanols. Cocoa flavanols are destroyed when the cacao beans are fermented, roasted, or processed with alkali (as in "dutched" cocoa), and when chocolate is "conched", or milled smooth. Some foods combined with cacao products might make it hard for you to absorb the flavanols. Natural cocoa powders contain 3-5% flavanol, while dutched cocoas are about 1% flavanol. Unsweetened (100% cacao) chocolates vary from about 1.9% to 2.5% flavanol, and are about 50% cocoa butter. Dark chocolates vary from about .85% to about 2.0% flavanols.

It is hard to know exactly what any off-the-shelf product contains, unless you happen to have access to some very expensive lab equipment and sophisticated software. Several chocolate companies supported studies to analyze their products via the American Cocoa Research Institute, but will not reveal which values belong to their products. Other companies, not part of the ACRI, may or may not have had their products analyzed, but are not supplying flavanol content information in any case. They may be trying to avoid making illegal health claims for their products.

I've contacted Hershey, Nestle, Baker's Chocolate, and Ghirardelli, asking if they can give minimum values for some products (natural cocoas and 100% cacao bars). The big companies simply chose to email me their answers to slightly different questions, while Ghirardelli told me plainly that they do not measure the flavanol content of their products. Mars promises a minimum of 200mg of flavonols per serving of its CocoaVia(TM) products, which contain proprietary high-flavanol CocoaPro(TM) process cocoa. Barry Callebaut has developed an ACTICOA(TM) process, which is said to preserve 70% of cocoa flavanols, but is not marketing any of its products directly to consumers.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Chocolate and Cinnamon are good for the heart

Even a little bit of the right kind can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol. It works much better than tea. And a big piece of chocolate can improve your blood sugar, too. And cinnamon can improve your blood pressure and blood sugar. Cinnamon and cocoa seem to have fewer adverse side effects than prescription drugs.

In a recent Italian study, patients in their 30's reduced their high blood pressure an average of 11.9 points systolic and 8.9 points diastolic after eating a popular German candy bar for only two weeks. Several other chocolate studies are summarized here. And the Kuna people of the San Blas Islands of Panama seem to be immune to high blood pressure -- as long as they drink their cocoa.

With your doctor is monitoring you regularly, the best-case scenario would be a 10-point drop in systolic and 8-point drop in diastolic blood pressure in a couple weeks, putting a prehypertensive back into the normal range. Even a 5-point drop that showed up over a couple of months would be worth celebrating. The worst-case scenario is no change, in which case you've bought and enjoyed chocolate for several weeks, and are no worse off. Unless you have migraines or a chocolate allergy, there is very little risk.

You just need to choose the right chocolate.

1. Cocoa can cause allergic reactions or trigger migraines in some people. Children shouldn't eat too much cocoa or chocolate. Chocolate and cocoa might cause decreased bone density in older women. Or not.
2. Cinnamon rarely causes an allergic skin reaction. Cinnamon can thin the blood and might have an estrogenic effect.

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