RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There is nothing sweeter than the idea that our vices could be good for us. Take chocolate - in recent years, studies have suggested that people who eat dark chocolate regularly may have a lower risk of heart disease. Now, as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, researchers are putting those claims to the test.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you're like me, you think of chocolate as a sweet treat. But what happens if you strip away all of the sugar and all of the milk fat that make it so indulgent? To find out, I bought a bag of cocoa nibs. These are little bits of raw, unsweetened cocoa. And I asked some folks who were hanging out at Union Station in D.C. to taste them.
Would you guys be willing to give them a try and tell me what you think?
One guy named Christopher Walker took a handful and popped them in his mouth.
You have a really bad look on your face.
CHRISTOPHER WALKER: It was not good at all. It's real, real, real bitter.
AUBREY: Are you surprised that this is why cocoa tastes like?
WALKER: Yeah, I really am.
AUBREY: The bitterness comes from the cocoa bean. And it turns out that cocoa contains a bunch of biologically active compounds known as flavanols that scientists are studying. David Katz, who directs the Yale University Prevention Research Center, says some of these compounds seem to be good for our blood vessels.
DAVID KATZ: What we've seen in studies is that intake of dark chocolate is associated with a greater ability of blood vessels to dilate when they should increase blood flow, and that would be a defense against cardiovascular disease.
AUBREY: At least in theory. But the hype over the potential health benefits of chocolate has gotten ahead of the science. That's one reason researchers are planning a big four-year study. Joanne Manson of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston is one of the researchers heading up the effort.
JOANNE MANSON: We'll be rigorously testing whether the cocoa flavanols do reduce risk of heart attack, stroke cognitive decline and many other health conditions over time.
AUBREY: They're currently recruiting people aged 60 and older to participate. Half of them will be given capsules filled with cocoa extract to take each day. They'll contain about as much as you'd get in 1000 calories of dark chocolate. The other half of the volunteers will be given a placebo.
So you're testing these cocoa compounds almost as if you would be testing a medicine, is that right?
MANSON: It's - it's almost like a medicine, but it's a naturally occurring bioactive that retains the components of the cocoa bean.
AUBREY: If the results are positive, chocolate lovers may rejoice. And chocolate makers, like Mars, who's helping to finance the study, may expand from the candy aisle to the supplement aisle. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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