Australian researchers have found that eating dark chocolate and cocoa powder could lower blood pressure about as much as increasing exercise and eating a healthier diet.
Researchers from the University of Adelaide reviewed 20 studies into the benefits of consuming cocoa daily and found it can lower blood pressure by similar level as can be achieved with changes to diet and exercise levels.
"The possible explanation is that cocoa contains flavanols, which are responsible for the formation of nitric oxide in the body, and nitric oxide causes blood vessel walls to relax and open wider, thereby reducing blood pressure," said study author Dr Karin Ried, director of the National Institute of Integrative Medicine.
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"High blood pressure is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease, contributing to about half the cardiovascular events, such as strokes and heart attacks worldwide and around a third of cardiovascular-related deaths. Evidence from epidemiological studies has suggested that cocoa might reduce this risk."
The review, published in the Cochrane Library, involved almost 900 people who consumed 3g to 100g of dark chocolate or cocoa powder each day, generally for two to eight weeks.
"As studies in our review were of short duration, longer term studies are needed to look into long-term effects," Dr Ried said.
But Professor Peter Clifton, laboratory head of Nutritional Interventions at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Adelaide, warned the studies were not conclusive enough to allow doctors to recommend people with high blood pressure eat chocolate.
"Losing 3kg would have an equivalent effect on blood pressure but would also lower your glucose and decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes," he said.