A young girl with dark brown skin and black hair walks along the beach on an island off the coast of panama. Her people have lived and worked on these islands for hundreds of years. And since she's as a member of the Kuna Indian tribe, there are more than a few things that this young girl will never experience, like high blood pressure or heart disease.
As a matter of fact, if researchers at Harvard are correct, almost no one in her tribe will either. When Harvard went down to Kuna to find out why they were apparently immune to heart disease, they were looking for a protective gene that the Kuna had that kept their blood pressure low. Turns out it was just chocolate.
That's right. Chocolate.
It couldn’t be the genes, they determined, because when Kuna indians leave the tribe and live on the mainland of Panama, cardiovascular disease becomes the number one cause of death, as it is for all Panamanians.
A healthy blood pressure is 120/80. 120 is the systolic, and 80 is the diastolic. The following chart shows the blood pressure readings for hypertension.
As most Americans age, there is an increasing hardening of the arteries as a result of dietary, lifestyle and genetic factors including smoking, poor diet, inactive lifestyle, being overweight and many more. The combination of these factors leads to hypertension, which the CDC reports is present in one out of every three American Adults (68 million people).
The Kuna Indians, on the other hand, have an average blood pressure of 110/70, whether they are 18 or 65 years old.
Although the Kuna have an active lifestyle and a healthy diet consisting of coconut, fish, plantains, wild game and other fruits, researchers determined that their high intake of flavonol rich cocoa is responsible for their low blood pressure. The flavonoids increase the amount of nitric oxide in the blood. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator meaning that it relaxes the arteries allowing flood to flow less restricted. This, in turn, lowers blood flow. Incidentally, this is similar to how viagra works and I would suspect that the Kuna have a very low incidence of erectile dysfunction.
Unfortunately, the Kuna aren't going to the office vending machine and buying a Nestle's Crunch. They grow and minimally process their own cocoa, and drink up to five cups per day and even add it to their food.
Highly-processed chocolate and chocolate processed at high heat, like most of the chocolate Americans consume will have already lost the majority of the benefit-containing flavonoids. Low heat, minimally processed dark chocolate with low sugar will reap the most rewards but it will also be more bitter. These healthier, blood pressure lowering flavonol rich chocolates will only be found in higher-end health food stores and should indicate that high temperature heat was not used in the processing.
As with every other beneficial nutrient, we must combine it with a healthy active lifestyle and a healthy diet just like the Kuna Indians do. Once we do this, adding high quality chocolate to our diets could have a significant impact on cardiovascular disease, twhich is the number one killer of Americans.
(This column is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.)