If you were given a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day, you’ll be glad to learn that a tribe of Indians who eat a lot of cocoa have shown that chocolate may prevent high blood pressure.

The Kuna tribe from Panama consume on average five cups of cocoa a day and include cocoa in many of their recipes. They have none of the rises in blood pressure rises that usually occur with age. Ingredients in chocolate called flavanols may promote the production of nitric oxide, which is a chemical that opens up the arteries to increase blood flow.

The research began as an investigation into the difference between Kuna Indians living on a group of central American islands and members of the tribe who had migrated to the urban environment of Panama City. After moving to the city and adopting an urban diet, the Indians began to develop high blood pressure as they aged. Those who stayed on the islands also excreted significantly higher levels of nitrites and nitrates than the city dwellers, suggesting that they ingested more nitric oxide.

To test the chocolate hypothesis, scientists fed a group of volunteers in Boston cocoa that contained either a high or a low amount of flavanols. The people who ate the high-flavanol cocoa had a kidney response which indicated that their bodies had high levels of nitric oxide.

Dr. Norman Hollenberg, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts, says, "If our research results continue to support a link between consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa and nitric oxide synthesis, there could be significant implications for public health." Like we could someday get a doctor’s prescription for chocolate?

Chocolate could help protect your teeth from decay. Scientists at Osaka University in Japan have discovered an active ingredient in the cocoa bean husk that kills mouth bacteria and prevents the formation of cavities. The trouble is, the husk is usually thrown away by chocolate manufacturers.

Tooth cavities form when the bacterium Streptococcus mutans produces a sticky molecule called glucan. Glucan helps bacteria anchor themselves to teeth and form layers of plaque. Inside the plaque, bacteria convert sugar to acid, which eats away the tooth enamel. When the scientists added an extract of cocoa bean husk to a culture of Streptococcus mutans, the production of glucan was blocked.

Rats given the extract had no more than six cavities after three months of being fed a high sugar diet. Rats not given the extract developed an average of 14 cavities. Takashi Ooshima, who led the research, says, "It may be possible to use cocoa bean husk extract in mouthwash or toothpaste." It could also be added to chocolate, along with creme fillings, raisins and nuts.

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