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Wednesday, February 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Chocolate has health benefits due to flavanols

By The Baltimore Sun and Los Angeles Times

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As Feb. 14 approaches, here's a Valentine from the candy world: Chocolate can be good for you in small doses, and growing it may not hurt the environment.

Some of the world's most highly respected chocolate experts met yesterday at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington for tastings, lectures and discussions that focus on environmentally friendly ways to produce cocoa — the powder that forms the basis of chocolate — and the health benefits linked to it.

The 2004 Cocoa Symposium was sponsored by the University of California, Davis; UC Santa Cruz; the National Institutes of Health; the Department of Health and Human Services; and Mars Inc., a candy manufacturer.

Chocolate contains chemicals called flavanols that have been shown to improve blood flow and reduce blood pressure. The compounds also are found in apples and other plant-based products such as wine and green tea.

The potential health effects of flavanols were discovered two years ago, when studies of blood-vessel function compared individuals who ate dark chocolate, which has high levels of the chemicals, to those who ate chocolate with a lower amount of flavanols.

Mars used that research as the basis for CocoaVia, a low-fat, flavanol-rich snack being test marketed. It is available only online.

An 80-calorie bar, which contains 100 mg of flavanols, is the industry's first step toward creating a truly healthful chocolate, Harold Schmitz, director of science at Mars, told the conference.

While recognizing the potential health benefits of chocolate, scientists also have noted that most commercially produced chocolate contains high levels of fats and sugars, which could negate the beneficial effects.

"Most of the chocolate currently available is delightful and delicious, but it's not a health food," said Norman Hollenberg, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "But it's imminent, it's coming," he said of flavanol-enriched chocolates.

Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, theobroma cacao. Its genus name means "food of the gods."
 
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The tree grows to about 12 feet and produces pods about the size of small footballs that contain seeds, or beans. The beans, when roasted and ground, form a powder that is the basis for chocolate.

From the plant to the bean, the product is called cacao. Once the bean is ground up, the product is called cocoa.

Over the years, cacao farming has been criticized for its use of child labor and its damage to the Amazon rain forests. But chocolate manufacturers say they've made progress in both areas.

Concerns about the rain forest began in the 1960s, when much of the cocoa produced in the world was raised on large plantations, where operators slashed and burned woodlands to clear sites for cacao trees.

But in the 1980s, a fungus known as witch's broom swept through Brazil, devastating the cacao plantations and prompting research into new farming practices.

By the late 1990s, chocolate manufacturers began encouraging farmers to plant cacao trees on smaller plots. By scattering the trees amid other vegetation, they saved the Amazon's natural habitat and ensured enough shade for rain forests to survive.

"The witch's broom blight in Brazil was a wake-up call about existing plantation practices," said Liliana Esposito, a spokeswoman for Mars.

In West Africa — where 70 percent of the world's cacao is produced — the concern was child labor. African cacao farms were the target of a U.S. government report in 2002 that found as many as 300,000 children were performing hazardous tasks to raise the crop, including spraying pesticides, using machetes to harvest cacao pods and carrying heavy loads.

After the U.S. Agency for International Development issued its findings, Mars and other chocolate manufacturers and distributors signed a pledge prohibiting the use of abusive child labor, Esposito said.

Mars has funded scientific research since the 1950s to ensure a continuous supply of high-quality cocoa, and benefits from reliable research, she said.

"We realize our own future is tied up in the future of cocoa," she said. "It's not just a matter of throwing a few things together to make chocolate. There really is a lot of agricultural and food science involved."

But critics say consumers should be careful to view news about the benefits of chocolate with a critical eye. Much of the research is financed by the chocolate industry, and critics wonder if that sugarcoats the results.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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