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Cocoa's sweet reward

Chocolate — that traditional antidote for broken hearts — now has another use. Foods rich in cocoa appear to reduce blood pressure, according to researchers at the University Hospital of Cologne in Germany.

Testing the hypothesis that plant compounds known as polyphenols found in cocoa and tea have a beneficial effect on blood pressure, researchers analyzed five studies on cocoa and five studies on tea between 1966 and 2006.

The report, which appears in the April issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that chocolate lowered systolic blood pressure by about 4.7 points on average and diastolic pressure by about 2.8 points. In short, a healthful daily dose of chocolate could reduce blood pressure of 140/80 to about 135/77.

Curiously, tea did not have a similar effect, possibly because the composition of the polyphenols in tea is slightly different. "It's likely that the phenols specific to cocoa represent the active ingredients," lead author and pharmacologist Dr. Dirk Taubert said in an e-mail. "A possible candidate are the so-called procyanidins, which are a group of complex phenols."

So a little chocolate a day may keep the doctor away? "Regular consumption of polyphenol-rich cocoa products like dark chocolate may be considered part of a blood pressure lowering diet, provided" — here it comes — "that there is no gain in total calorie intake," he says. Natch. There's always a catch.