www. longevity.about.com - February 22nd, 2013
Cocoa and the Kuna Indians: Chocolate has been used for medicinal effect for thousands of years, but its recent recognition as a possible heart-healthy food came to light in the early 1990s. Harvard Medical School researchers, led by Norman Hollenberg, investigated why Kuna Indians, living in the San Blas Islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama, had low blood pressure, even with increasing age. This was true despite a high level of salt consumption, which exceeded that of most Western populations.
If the Kunas had their genetic makeup to thank for healthy blood pressure, moving to an urban environment on the mainland shouldn’t make any difference. But it did –- migration to cities corresponded with a rise in blood pressure, with increasing age. Further investigation showed island-dwelling Kunas also lived longer than their mainland cousins, with low rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer. After allowing for factors like stress and lack of pollution, Hollenberg and his team concluded the most striking difference in the Kuna Indians’ island environment was dietary, including a dramatic average daily consumption of more than 5 cups of cocoa, per person.
There’s a big difference between the cocoa the Kunas drink, and the cocoa and chocolate people usually purchase in a grocery or specialty store -- mostly due to how it’s processed and its formulation.
Processing: Cocoa beans grow as the seed of the berry-like fruit of the cacao tree. After shelling and roasting, the beans are ground into a suspension called cocoa liquor, made up of cocoa butter (fat) and solids. Pressing removes most of the cocoa butter, resulting in a hard, dry cake, which is ground into what we use as cocoa powder.
This powder contains most of the flavanols, a family of flavonoids, or antioxidants, that have since been credited with most of chocolate’s health benefits. Flavanols affect the way nitric oxide is produced in the body, helping blood vessels to relax, and thereby improving blood flow to the heart, the brain, and extremities. They also may reduce inflammation, and the proliferation of dangerous free radicals produced in regular cell metabolism.