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David Bradley ISSUE #63
March 2007
Cocoa Has Beans

A natural compound found in cocoa, teas, wine, and some fruit and vegetables could lead to a breakthrough in health and nutrition, according to US researchers.

Epicatechin (Structure by David Bradley)

The compound in question, epicatechin, a flavanol, may eventually rival penicillin and anesthesia in terms of importance to public health, according to Marina Murphy, writing in the journal Chemistry & Industry. Murphy discusses the context of research by Norman Hollenberg, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He claims that epicatechin is so important that it should be considered a vitamin, alongside such essential trace compounds as ascorbic acid (vitamin C), vitamin B12, and folate.

Cacao-pods containing cocoa beans

Hollenberg based his assertions on the basis of many years studying the health of the Kuna people who live on islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. He found that the Kuna have just 10% of the risk of developing four of the big five killer diseases: stroke, ischemic heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, compared with people living a developed world lifestyle. He also found that they have very little age-related high blood pressure.

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This, coupled with the fact that the Kuna drink up to forty cups of cocoa a week, suggests that the high levels of epicatechin in the natural form of this drink could be the source of the overwhelming health benefits. Epicatechin could all but eradicate four of the most important diseases in the developed world, Hollenberg says. Kuna people who migrate to the mainland and settle in Panama City, suffer the same blood pressure rises with age as seen elsewhere in the West. One of the most significant changes in their lifestyle on leaving the islands is that they lose access to their epicatechin-rich diet.

Nutritional expert Daniel Fabricant Vice President of Scientific Affairs at the Natural Products Association suggests that Hollenberg's empirical evidence is impressive and may warrant a rethink of how vitamins are defined. Currently, compounds such as epicatechin, which have demonstrable health benefits, are excluded from the definition of vitamin because they are not "vital" to normal functioning, metabolism, regulation, and growth of cells. Deficiency of any single vitamin is linked to particular disease states, but epicatechin is not. "The link between high epicatechin consumption and a decreased risk of killer disease is so striking, it should be investigated further," says Fabricant. "It may be that these diseases are the result of epicatechin deficiency," he adds.

Ironically, while the Kuna drink natural cocoa as opposed to the processed, sweetened variety found in tubs on the supermarket shelves, the product available in the developed world has the epicatechin removed during manufacturing because it tastes bitter. However, many people drink bitter drinks, such as coffee, without qualms. If a bitter form of cocoa could save you from cancer or diabetes, then many people might turn to their back on the sweet and sickly option in favor of the bitter alternative.

Chocolate manufacturer Mars, Inc. is keen to develop products high in epicatechin, and along with other funding providers, has provided financial support and expertise for some of Hollenberg's research.

J Cardiovasc Pharmacol. 2006;47 Suppl 2:S99-102