Sunday, August 21, 2005

Is your chocolate flavinol-rich?

Research promising for chocolate lovers
WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's not exactly a guilt-free pleasure, but food researchers say cocoa beans could be good for you.

The health potential is real. Cocoa beans have natural compounds called flavanols, and a growing pile of scientific research suggests they do good things to blood vessels.

Despite the enthusiasm, flavanols are missing from much of the chocolate on store shelves today. Flavanols make chocolate and cocoa taste bitter, and confectioners have spent years trying to perfect ways to remove the pungent flavor.

Flavanols are found in other foods, such as red wine, grapes, apples and green tea, although cocoa beans are a particularly rich source.

Mars Inc. developed the technology to visualize flavanols on a computer screen. Says Harold Schmitz, the company's chief science officer: "Now we understand cocoa well enough to start to do new things with it."

The company is starting with CocoaVia granola bars, made with a special cocoa powder that retains most of the flavanols. The bars also have plant sterols, which have been shown to help lower cholesterol.

For now, the 80-calorie, 23-gram snack bars are sold only on the Internet. The bars have a satisfyingly rich chocolate flavor, along with a slight but distinct bitter taste.

Mars says its Dove dark chocolates -- a 1.3 ounce bar is 200 calories -- also contain flavanols.

Researchers are excited by the potential of flavanols to ward off vascular disease, which can cause heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, dementia and hypertension. Vascular diseases are linked to the artery's inability to make a simple but fundamental chemical called nitric oxide. Flavanols appear to reverse that problem.

"The pharmaceutical industry has spent tens, probably hundreds of millions of dollars in search of a chemical that would reverse that abnormality," Hollenberg said. "And God gave us flavanol-rich cocoa, which does that. So the excitement is real."

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