Brigham and Women’s To Study Cocoa’s Health Benefits

The study will investigate cocoa flavanol's relationship to heart health and will be the largest nutritional trial of its kind.

homemade chocolate image via shutterstock

homemade chocolate image via shutterstock

Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) is teaming up with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Mars, Inc. (yes, that Mars, aka the creators of M&M’s) to start what BWH reps say is the largest research trial to date investigating what, if any, heart health benefits there are to cocoa flavanols. So in other words, is chocolate good for your heart? Here’s hoping.

The study will examine cocoa’s health benefits, specifically the role that flavanols play in reducing the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from cardiovascular disease. Flavanols, which are a naturally occurring plant-derived bioactive compound found in cocoa beans and a variety of other foods, will be explored in capsule form (although eating chocolate all day in the name of medical science sounds delicious, it’s not that kind of study). This will be a nationwide, five-year study of 18,000 men and women.

“Cocoa flavanols and multivitamins are two of the most promising and exciting nutritional interventions available, and this new randomized trial is the natural next step in advancing our understanding of their potential benefits,” says Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at BWH. “In smaller studies, cocoa flavanols have been linked to improvements in intermediate risk factors for heart disease, such as reductions in blood pressure and cholesterol levels, improvements in the body’s sensitivity to insulin, and improved ability of blood vessels to dilate.”

According to the report:

The proposed placebo-controlled randomized trial uses an innovative and highly cost-efficient approach to recruitment by including individuals who have already indicated their commitment to medical research by participating in other research studies. This allows for a rapid recruitment process and avoids the delays and high costs of recruiting new research participants. The recruitment process is slated to begin in fall 2014 and continue into 2015.

Mars, Inc. will be paying for the study in conjunction with the Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the NIH, and the chocolate maker will also be providing the cocoa flavanol capsules. “This collaboration represents the best of a public-private partnership in the interest of advancing science and public health. It’s exciting to be at this turning point in scientific discovery where we have the potential to achieve benefits for some of our most significant health challenges today,” said Harold Schmitz, Ph.D, Chief Science Officer at Mars, Inc. in a statement. (Yes, Mars, Inc. has a “chief science officer,” apparently. Creating something so delicious a science, obviously.)

A prior study by Harvard Medical School researchers also looked at the health benefits of cocoa and found that seniors who drank hot cocoa twice a day had a 30 percent increase in memory and thinking abilities. So the bottom line: chocolate makes you smarter and may improve heart health. Only time—and regular chocolate consumption—will tell.