Can cocoa protect against cancer?

Finally a study that may prove the benefits of eating cocoa. Emma Baines investigates

What is the story?
A regular cup of cocoa could be the secret to warding off killer diseases including diabetes, stroke, dementia and even cancer, according to media reports.

They claim that American Indians have a lower risk of these diseases thanks to their chocolate-rich diet which includes up to five cups of cocoa a day.

The health benefits of cocoa come from its high levels of the nutrient epicatechin, which is so important to good health that it should be considered an essential vitamin, the papers said.

What is the research?
The media stories are based on an article in the magazine Chemistry & Industry which included an interview with Norman Hollenberg, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who has carried out research on epicatechin.

In this article, Professor Hollenberg discussed the results of an observational study he carried out in Panama, which was partly funded by the M&M/Mars confectionery company.

The study compared the cause of death of 77,375 people from mainland Panama with that of 558 American Indians from the Kuna tribe who live on the San Blas islands, an impoverished rural area where there are no roads or motor vehicles.

The main causes of death on mainland Panama were IHD and stroke, followed by cancer.

On the San Blas islands, however, the most common cause of death was infectious disease, including tuberculosis, malaria, influenza and HIV.

The number of deaths from IHD in the islanders was a fifth of that seen on the mainland. The number of deaths from stroke was less than a tenth.

The researchers suggested that the high flavonol intake of the San Blas islanders could account for this difference.

The Kuna of the San Blas islands have the highest dietary intake of flavonols in the world because they drink a flavonol-rich cocoa.

These flavonols make the cocoa bitter and are therefore removed from commercially sold cocoa during the manufacturing process.

What the researcher says?
Professor Hollenberg told Chemistry & Industry that the risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes was ‘reduced to less than 10 per cent’ in the San Blas islanders and that they did not suffer from dementia at all.

He concluded that the flavonol epicatechin was ‘arguably more important than penicillin’.

What do other experts say?
Dr Toni Steer, nutritionist at the Medical Research Council Human Nutrition Research Centre in Cambridge said: ‘This is an observational study, and while it is interesting, you can’t really start making dietary recommendations based on it.’

She said that a randomised controlled trial of epicatechin would have to be carried out before discovering its benefits.

She added that the difference in mortality rates between the San Blas islanders and people from mainland Panama was impressive, but she also that a number of factors could account for this.

‘You have to think about what else they might be doing differently that may be having an effect.

‘It strikes me that these people who have no cars or roads do a lot of walking and exercise.

‘They probably have to do a lot more rigorous physical activity than people on mainland Panama. Maybe one of the reasons that they don’t die of cardiovascular disease or diabetes is that they are simply fitter.’

She stressed that this study did not show that eating chocolate bars, or drinking cocoa, reduced the risk of any of the diseases,  such as cancer, mentioned.

‘The danger is that this will encourage people to think that by eating chocolate or drinking cocoa they are reducing their risk of diabetes and heart disease, whereas the opposite is true,’ she said.

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