Cocoa consumers have lower disease risk: study

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Men who consumed the most cocoa had a 50 percent lower risk of dying from disease compared to those who did not eat cocoa, Dutch researchers said on Monday.

Cocoa is known to lower blood pressure, though previous studies have disagreed about whether it staves off heart disease over the long-term particularly since it is contained in foods high in fat, sugar and calories.

The new study in Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that it was not lower blood pressure that corresponded to the finding of a lower overall risk of death -- although the biggest cocoa consumers did have lower blood pressure and fewer cases of fatal heart disease than non-cocoa eaters.

Instead, the report credited antioxidants and flavanols found in cocoa with boosting the functioning of cells that line blood vessels and for lessening the risks from cholesterol and other chemicals that can cause heart attacks, cancer and lung diseases. Flavanols are a class of healthy flavonoids that are found in many vegetables, green tea and red wine.

The 15-year study of 470 elderly men aged 65 to 84 in Zutphen, the Netherlands, found one-third did not eat any cocoa, while the median intake was 4.2 grams per day among the third who consumed the most cocoa. From 1985 to 2000, 314 of the men died, and the biggest cocoa eaters were at half the risk of dying compared to men who did not eat it.

The report's author, Brian Buijsse of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in Bilthoven, said drawing conclusions for the broader population would require more study of cocoa's impact on health.

"Before we can say cocoa can save your life, a larger study would need to be done," agreed Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologists at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York who did not participate in the research. "This study is not generalizable to the public because it was done in men over the age of 65 years."