Dark chocolate can slightly lower blood pressure in people with mild hypertension, according to a new study that spotlights the medical benefits of a tasty treat.
German researchers writing in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. said dark chocolate was rich in flavonols, plant-based compounds that also are credited with giving red wine its heart-healthy benefits. Just 30 calories' worth -- about the size of a Hershey's Kiss -- not only helped lower blood pressure but also raised levels of nitric oxide, which relaxed blood vessels.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum of Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan said it was time to move dark chocolate from the candy store to the clinic.
"The best part of this study is that it allows us to give whole-hearted recommendations to those patients with high blood pressure who might have a sweet tooth," she said.
Going into the study, Dr. Dirk Taubert of University Hospital in Cologne, Germany, hypothesized that "small, habitual" doses of dark chocolate might prove beneficial. He gathered 44 adults ages 56 to 73 who had untreated pre-hypertension or mild, stage 1 hypertension. Test participants were divided into two groups. One consumed a daily dose of dark chocolate; the other the same amount of white chocolate.
Average blood pressure at the start of the 18-week test was 147 over 86. Systolic blood pressure, the top number, fell an average of nearly three points and diastolic dropped almost two points in the group that ate dark chocolate, compared with no change in blood pressure readings in the group eating white chocolate.
Still, some doctors aren't clamoring to call dark chocolate a medication.
"There are probably a lot of naturally occurring compounds that have beneficial effects on blood pressure, but it just so happens that this one comes packaged in dark chocolate," said Dr. David L. Brown of Stony Brook University Medical Center on Long Island. His conclusion: "It's not ready for prime time."
Dr. Stephen R. Green, associate director of the cardiac catheterization laboratories at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., said patients with hypertension should stick with their medications.
Steinbaum said "dark chocolate, in minimal consumption, can not only cut a craving, but through its flavonoid effect [have] a positive benefit on blood pressure."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.