Will you be indulging in a little red wine and chocolate this Christmas time? Or perhaps you like a little of either, or both, throughout the year. Let’s face, it both these are foods and drinks that carry some pretty hefty health warnings – so consume in moderation and occasionally is typically the refrain. However both have been in the health news regularly of late with a raft of research projects exploring the potential health benefits related to these foods and drinks.
There are very serious health issues relating to excess and frequent alcohol consumption, and government guidelines are clear here (link below). For chocolate it is somewhat different; cocoa is the key ingredient we will be talking about today and the cocoa content of chocolate and beverages varies widely between products.
However, excess chocolate consumption (whether eaten or drunk), especially ‘lower grade’ quality chocolate products, contain worrying amounts of sugar, fats and additives. In addition, many chocolate products contain other, less than healthy, ingredients. The common health implications for excess consumption are diabetes, excess weight and cardiovascular issues.
News stories seem to regularly appear, with the latest research suggesting daily cups of cocoa or a few squares of dark chocolate may be beneficial for health. Similarly the media stories that a small amount of red wine each day may be good for adults get regularly aired. And it is in relation to support for cardiovascular (heart) health that is the focus of research in relation to both these substances.
The respective focus of such research is in relation to the cocoa flavanol content of chocolate and the levels of polyphenols and antioxidants in red wine, in particular a compound called resveratrol. Indeed, resveratrol is also found in cocoa to. So let us take a closer look at these two topics.
We have all heard that moderate wine consumption can be beneficial for heart health. While most of us interpret this as giving us permission to enjoy that glass of red wine with dinner and think nothing more of it, the real hero behind the scenes may be a naturally-occurring compound in wine called resveratrol. Resveratrol is found in grapes, grape products and other sources, such as nuts. The excellent George Mateljan Foundation have the following to say about resveratrol:
“Resveratrol is a unique phytonutrient that is found in grapes, cranberries, blueberries, peanuts, jackfruit, mulberries, bilberries, lingonberries, and a wide range of other non-food plants including flowers and trees. Most of the research on resveratrol has been done on animals or in laboratory studies involving tissue extracts, and, for this reason, scientists are not yet certain about the health benefits of resveratrol for humans who consume ordinary amounts of resveratrol-containing foods.
However, there has been increasing interest in this phytonutrient (technically called a polyphenol phytoalexin) in relationship to the “French paradox,” a situation in which red wine drinking among French citizens has appeared to decrease risk of heart disease, despite the alcohol content of the wine. Resveratrol clearly functions in the body as an antioxidant nutrient, and it also may have an important role to play as a phytoestrogen.”
The link to their full article is provided below, and they do go on to suggest focussing on including red grapes in the diet and no more than the occasional glass of red wine. And for those of you intrigued by the ‘French paradox’ there is a link below to an article by Professor Jean Ferrières on the U.S. National Library of Medicine – ‘The French paradox: lessons for other countries’.
At this stage we should make it very clear that although a lot of research has, and continues to be, carried out in respect of resveratrol there are currently no approved health claims from EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority). Indeed EFSA’s mass rejection of antioxidant foods and constituents included resveratrol.
Although resveratrol is found in a wide range of foods, the best known source of resveratrol is red wine. It is considered that the antioxidants in red wine, called polyphenols, may help protect the lining of blood vessels in the heart; and resveratrol is one such polyphenol found in red wine.
Different research studies into resveratrol have focussed on how the flavonoid resveratrol may support the vascular system by reducing the stickiness of platelets and increasing levels of the beneficial HDL cholesterol. A recent study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, compiling over a decade of research in animal models, supports the claim that resveratrol benefits heart health. Furthermore, it goes on to identify specific ways in which resveratrol may combat atherosclerosis, or plaque build-up in the arteries, thereby reducing risks for cardiovascular disease.
The authors describe several ways in which resveratrol appears to benefit cardiovascular health. These include: beneficially altering cholesterol levels, providing antioxidant action on damaging free-radicals, and acting as an anti-inflammatory agent.
A very recent study (December 2014) from Germany has been published with the following findings; the link to the full study is further below.
“A natural substance present in red wine, resveratrol, inhibits the formation of inflammatory factors that trigger cardiovascular diseases. This has been established by a research team at the Department of Pharmacology of the University Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz (JGU) working in collaboration with researchers of the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena and the University of Vienna. Their results have recently been published in the scientific journal Nucleic Acids Research.”
Resveratrol is a flavonoid, and flavonoids are contained in all fruit and vegetables. Flavonoids serve as protective nutrients in plant tissue to protect the plant (and, in particular, its DNA) against external threat, and once consumed by humans they act in the same way. Flavonoids come in a variety of different colour pigments, and each has a different protective action.
One certainly controversial aspect of resveratrol research is into its possible effect on genes to produce ‘sirtuins’- proteins that help fight disease and ageing. Just in the last few years this scientific debate has raged, in particular as the financial rewards are enormous for pharmaceutical companies looking to produce anti-ageing drugs that may incorporate resveratrol.
You can easily find a huge amount of information online on this topic and other research into resveratrol and cardiovascular health. Likewise, research on the ‘French paradox’ and what many health professionals have to say on the topic of regular but small quantities of red wine.
Asides from red wine and red grapes plus other foods, resveratrol is available in a supplement form. For example at Cytoplan we include it in our ‘Heart Support’ formula that also comprises fish oil, vitamins K and D, lycopene and CoQ10. If you are on anticoagulant medication consult your doctor before taking a resveratrol supplement. And finally we reiterate our earlier comments on alcohol consumption and that too much alcohol can have many harmful and life-threatening effects on your body.
Cocoa flavanols are the beneficial phytonutrients (plant based nutrients) found naturally in cocoa beans, one of which is resveratrol. And the first thing to say, and some of you may be a little surprised here, is that there is a current permitted EFSA health claim for cocoa flavanols – the permitted claim being “Cocoa Flavanols help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow”
As with all nutrients there is a minimal ingestion amount required to comply with the health claim and this is 200mg of cocoa flavanols daily. And the claim can apply to a beverage or dark chocolate with the requisite quality content and polymerisation of cocoa flavanols.
There have been other health claims lodged with EFSA in respect of cocoa flavanols that have been rejected, and others are still pending. Some people may view the lodging of health claims by chocolate manufacturers as cynical. And it highlights the fact that lodging claims is hugely expensive and therefore more likely to be done by highly commercially driven (and profitable) organisations.
However, as in this example, if a health claim is approved one needs to take note. Indeed there are centuries of documented uses of chocolate in medicine and diet for ancient cultures dating back to the South American Aztecs. And it is believed to be Christopher Columbus who was the first to bring cocoa beans (and thus chocolate) to Europe.
The main ingredient of chocolate is the cocoa, and the flavanols in cocoa beans have the antioxidant effects that are implicated in reducing cell damage that can contribute to heart disease. The action of the flavanols may also help lower blood pressure and support vascular functions. The cocoa bean comes from the cacao plant, and cacao is wonderfully rich in the phytonutrient flavanols.
The type and quality of chocolate is very important and flavanols are more prevalent in dark chocolate than in milk chocolate. The more ‘non-fat’ cocoa solids a chocolate product contains, the more antioxidant cocoa flavanols it should contain. Most chocolate products have other types of fat such as milk added which will vastly dissipate the beneficial cocoa flavanol content. Such products are also more likely to have appreciable levels of saturated and trans fats, which are to be avoided. These products are also likely to be higher in sugar, calories and additives and hence the risks (with excess consumption) for weight gain, diabetes and heart health issues.
Cacao does contain some saturated fat, however – mostly stearic acid – and research has suggested this does not elevate blood cholesterol levels as much as other saturated fatty acids. The other fatty acids in cocoa butter are monounsaturated fat, considered a ‘desirable’ fat and beneficial in moderation plus another saturated fat called palmitic fatty acid.
So, your personal flavour preferences aside, high quality dark chocolate would offer the best cocoa flavanol content. So do your research carefully. We provide links below to three NutraIngredient.com articles that provide more details:
“ Healthy chocolate? The growing evidence for cocoa flavanols – The meteoric emergence of cocoa flavanols as the new ‘super ingredient’ continues, with many new scientific publications focused on the potential health effects of these special compounds. As part of this special edition, we take a look at some of the highlights.”
“ High flavanol chocolate: Which cocoa flavanols are the best? – Epicatechin is the gold standard cocoa flavanol says a medical doctor, but Barry Callebaut claims all flavanols have a positive effect on cardiovascular health.”
“ Chocolate linked to improved brain performance – Chocolate can improve brain functioning and mood, according to scientific review assessing over 100 previous studies linking chocolate to health benefits” (British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology).” http://bit.ly/Chocolate-Brain-Performance
So this Christmas remember: it’s all in the cocoa flavanols – but remember try and practise some moderation and quality! Also don’t forget that cocoa flavanols can be obtained from non chocolate bar based food and drink products. Plant derived flavonoid phytonutrients are also available in a supplement form.
And time to wish you all a very happy and healthy Christmas. We do not have an article next week and will rejoin you the following week.
If you have any questions regarding this article, any of the health topics raised, or any other health matters, please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time.
Amanda Williams, Cytoplan Ltd
firstname.lastname@example.org, 01684 310099
Gov UK – Reducing Harmful Drinking
George Mateljan Foundation – Resveratrol
The U.S. National Library of Medicine – ‘The French paradox: lessons for other countries’
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz – Natural substance in red wine has an anti-inflammatory effect in cardiovascular diseases