Researchers in South Australia are investigating a theory that cocoa - the main ingredient in chocolate - could actually help people lose weight and stay healthy.
PATRICK EMMETT: It was about 10 years ago in the jungles of Central America that scientists first suspected the humble cocoa bean might be more than just a raw material for one of the world's favourite sweets. They were looking into why some of the local Indians had an unusually low rate of cardiovascular disease. In fact, their blood pressure would hardly go up as they got older. The common link was they drank large amounts of a concoction made from cocoa beans.
ASSOC PROF JON BUCKLEY, UNISA: There's a growing body of evidence that it does have cardiovascular benefits, and people are looking at its effects on peripheral blood flow and also brain blood flow and the potential benefits for cognitive function, and so there are a lot of health benefits and people are starting to identify potentially new health benefits.
PATRICK EMMETT: Thousands of kilometres away from the jungle John Davison and his team at the University of South Australia are looking into just how good cocoa can be for us. The special ingredient in cocoa is flavonols, antioxidants which make blood vessels dilate so blood flows easier. What the UniSA researchers are studying is whether that may even help people lose weight.
ASSOC PROF JON BUCKLEY: We noted in people who are overweight or obese that they have impaired dilatory function. So say if you're obese and you go for a walk then the blood vessels that supply the blood to your active muscles won't dilate as freely as they will in someone who is not obese. So you have to carry this extra weight and at the same time you're less able to provide adequate blood flow to the muscles, so you are at a double disadvantage.
PATRICK EMMETT: To do their study the scientists will use ultrasound to measure how much blood flows through an artery.
They'll then use this machine to measure fat levels. Over a 12-week period the subjects will then drink a special cocoa drink every day and do a moderate exercise program.
The scientists will then see whether drinking more cocoa has helped some of the group lose more weight.
UNISA SCIENTIST: So you can see we have got your body divided into different sections here and we've actually got a report here of the percentage of body fat and lean tissue in each of these sections. So what we're going to do is come back in 12 weeks time, take another scan and we'll compare the percentage of fat in all these different regions and we're hoping that over the period on the supplement that you'll get a reduction in body fat, particularly in around this abdominal region.
PATRICK EMMETT: Now most of us know cocoa is the key ingredient in the king of confectionary: chocolate. But before you start rushing to the supermarket, there's a warning.
ASSOC PROF JON BUCKLEY: Chocolate ain't chocolate.
PATRICK EMMETT: It seems while some of the very best chocolate has high levels of cocoa, a lot of the cheaper brands don't. And the flavonols can also be lost in the processing. Dark chocolate generally has higher cocoa levels than milk chocolate but milk chocolate is far more popular and, because of high sugar and fat levels, it's still a long way off being prescribed by doctors. Jon Buckley sees his research as being a step towards changing that and he hopes that in the near future, by adding cocoa to drinks and chocolate, we could actually be helping the fight against obesity.
ASSOC PROF JON BUCKLEY: If you could eat as much chocolate as you wanted and know it was doing you good then that would be fantastic.
Cocoa is a dark brown powder that comes from cocoa beans. Itís used to make chocolate.
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