What would be the fun in getting benefits of chocolate in pill form?

SEATTLE - If the healthful benefits of broccoli could be distilled into a pill, veggie haters worldwide would rejoice. But who would choose to get their chocolate fix by gulping a tablet? The rush to cash in on chocolate's apparent ability to low...

Chocolate pills
Chocolate pills

SEATTLE - If the healthful benefits of broccoli could be distilled into a pill, veggie haters worldwide would rejoice.

But who would choose to get their chocolate fix by gulping a tablet?

The rush to cash in on chocolate's apparent ability to lower blood pressure, improve circulation and maybe even fight diabetes is threatening to take the fun out of indulgence. Products like purified cacao capsules are already on the market. A Texas company filed a patent last year on chocolate bars bulked up with fiber.

Not exactly the kind of thing to make a girl swoon on Valentine's Day.

Brace yourself for more of the same as manufacturers push to turn chocolate into what a recent trade article called "a suitable vehicle for functional confectionary."


One small Seattle chocolate company hopes to subvert that trend.

In a former brewery in Fremont, Wash., Andy McShea of Theo Chocolate is trying to tease out the molecular basis of scrumptiousness. In the short term, the former pharmaceutical-industry biochemist is using scientific insight to optimize Theo's artisan approach to chocolate making. In the long term, he's aiming for the same goal as the candy industry's biggest players: a way to maximize chocolate's health benefits while minimizing its baggage of fat and calories.

But if it isn't delicious too, what's the point?, asks McShea, Theo's sole scientist and chief operating officer. "The hair-shirt approach doesn't work."

Consumers were not enamored of Cocoa Via, one of the first health-themed chocolate products. The granola-type bar from candy giant Mars, Inc., was fortified with flavonols, the antioxidants credited with many of chocolate's health effects. Mars' newest attempt is a dietary-supplement drink mix billed as a "concentrated source of cocoa flavonols," and next up is a fruit-flavored drink fortified with flavonols from cocoa.

The company is so convinced of chocolate's biomedical potential it created a new division to develop and patent foods and possibly drugs based on cocoa and its components. Mars is even helping sequence the genome of Theobroma cacao, the species that is the source of so much delight _ and Theo Chocolate's namesake.

"We see a lot of potential," said Mars spokesman Hugo Perez, who estimates the company has spent tens of millions of dollars on cocoa research.

If McShea is fazed by the competition's scientific firepower, he doesn't show it.

"We're going to do things better," said the cocky Brit, who studied at Harvard and also worked at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.


The tough talk comes from a company 4 years old, with about 50 employees. But Theo's organic, fair-trade products, like dark chocolate with dried cherries and almonds, have earned raves in publications from Time Out New York to O Magazine.

Theo says it's the only Northwest company that manufactures chocolates from beans to finished product.

An artisan operation has advantages over megacompanies when it comes to producing a healthful product, McShea says. Industrial processing can destroy flavonols and other key compounds. McShea says his lab analyses of popular chocolate brands show mass-produced candy doesn't have as complex a flavor profile as artisan chocolate.

McShea also has graphs and charts that show the heirloom varieties of cacao trees favored by Theo produce more flavonol-rich and flavorful beans than the varieties that dominate large cacao plantations.

The main stumbling block to a yummy chocolate health food is the fact that flavonols are bitter, McShea said. Chocolate stripped of sugar has a mouth-puckering quality. Chocolate that skimps on cocoa butter is chalky.

"We're working hard to figure out a way to separate the health effects from the calories and retain the flavor," McShea said. "Nobody has been able to do that yet."

His chemical analyses, which are helping to reveal what makes chocolate taste, feel and smell good, are a step in that direction. But the goal isn't to engineer chocolate into something else, McShea said. It's to find that magic mix of tree, bean and roasting method that will lead to the prize.

To get there, McShea will need to make the most of every advantage he has.


His Super Secret Chocolate Laboratory is the size of a bedroom. He turns to researchers at the University of Washington and their million-dollar machines to help him bore into chocolate at the nano-level.

McShea also acts as his own guinea pig. He says he logged a 20 percent drop in blood pressure after dosing himself with pure chocolate extract. He self-medicated a back strain by eating cocoa nibs, and claims the anti-inflammatory effects sped his recovery.

Don't try this at home - and don't take McShea's high jinks as proof. But reputable research does appear to validate many of the medicinal effects first noted by the Maya and Aztecs.

More than 200 clinical studies have shown eating small amounts of dark chocolate can lower blood pressure, improve circulation, reduce levels of bad cholesterol and increase sensitivity to insulin, a marker of diabetes resistance. Most of the studies are small, though, and most were paid for by candy makers.

"The evidence is not conclusive," said Jeffrey Blumberg, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University. The research has largely focused on indicators of health like blood pressure, rather than actual heart disease, Blumberg pointed out.

"I think it's critically important to remember, no matter how you cut it, chocolate is still not a health food."

Blumberg doesn't dismiss chocolate's potential. But the reductionist approach of isolating compounds, putting them in pills or powders and expecting the same benefits as from eating carrots, oranges and other whole foods has failed repeatedly, he pointed out. Beta carotene didn't live up to its hype, nor did vitamin E.

Adam Drewnowski, director of the UW Center for Obesity Research, endorses the value of whole, healthful foods, and considers good chocolate among them. While chocoholics await the supercharged confections of tomorrow, he says it's possible to maximize health benefits today by eating only premium dark chocolate, in small quantities.


"Do not accept inferior imitations," said Drewnowski, who nibbles from a fine French chocolate bar every day. "If you're just grabbing bags of Hershey Kisses on the way to work, you're not doing yourself any favors."

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