They media is often full of hype about "health foods". True "health food", to quote Michael Pollan, probably means, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.'' That being said, chemical compounds isolated from natural substances (foods included) are an important line of medical research and can lead to insights on the health effects of food, and on drug development. The latest issue of Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, has a lovely little article about the cardiac effects of chocolate---and who doesn't care about chocolate?
Reading a scientific article is often a boring affair. Few articles are ground-breaking. In the bland prose of scientific writing, another piece of nature is elucidated, adding to the pool of knowledge from which scientists draw. This article certainly isn't a stunner, but it has a certain sexiness; it's about chocolate and it's about the heart.
First, this is a small study, but it's a randomized controlled trial. That's a good thing. It looked at 22 heart transplant patients, assigned to receive two different kinds of chocolate, one with particular flavinoids, one without. Various parameters important to cardiac physiology were measured. A significant difference was found between the groups. Those receiving flavinol-rich chocolate had more beneficial effects on the heart as measured in this study.
So, do we start eating dark chocolate every morning? The accompanying editorial is terrific, but available to subscribers only. I'll give you my take.
The significance of this article is that is observed certain population trends (ethnic groups consuming large amounts of certain kinds of chocolate had less heart disease, but when they moved to "civilization", the rates went back up). Hypotheses were formed about how chocolate, or certain compounds in chocolate, might affect the heart. A small, well-designed study actually measured these phenomena. And, for the big finish, they refused to draw inappropriate broader conclusions regarding chocolate and health. And that, above all else, is what makes this science. An avenue is open to further research---larger studies, more important outcome measurements, etc. No advice, no hype. So, boring can be good. A big, flashy news release, while not uncommon, is not the measure of the quality of a piece of scientific work. This study is interesting. Some day, with more research, we'll know more, and may even be able to make clinical recommendations.
Andreas J. Flammer, Frank Hermann, Isabella Sudano, Lukas Spieker, Matthias Hermann, Karen A. Cooper, Mauro Serafini, Thomas F. LÃ¼scher, Frank Ruschitzka, Georg Noll, and Roberto Corti. Dark Chocolate Improves Coronary Vasomotion and Reduces Platelet Reactivity
Circulation. 2007;116:2376-2382; published online before print November 5 2007, doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.107.713867
Norman K. Hollenberg and Naomi D.L. Fisher. Is It the Dark in Dark Chocolate?
Circulation. 2007;116:2360-2362, doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.107.738070