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Magical Elixir: Cocoa

Excerpted article ...
The Kuna Indians of Panama with Magical Elixir: Cocoa
Posted by Julio C. Chavez

RYE, England, March 13 (UPI) -- When they are not talking about the sonic rise in house prices, the English mutter about the collapse of the National Health Service.

The Kuna Indians of Panama have excited the attention of Harvard Medical School for an ancient cure surely none of us will turn up our noses at: cocoa.
Professor of Medicine Norman Hollenberg reports in the current International Journal of Medical Sciences of cocoa therapy -- one we would happily be prescribed, and one we already practice -- just not in the right quantities or with the right quality of compound.

For centuries, the isolated tribal people living on the San Blas Islands north of Panama have apparently benefited from a diet that includes up to 40 cups a week of the soothing dark drink. If we indulged in drinking that much of the cocoa found in supermarkets, we would quickly succumb to extra weight gain, pimples and zits and the possibility of heart attacks. What we think of as cocoa in the modern world is generally a processed powder pumped with sugar and stripped of goodness.

But the Kuna Indians are drinking the unadulterated, unstripped cocoa, its bitterness tempered by sugar. The secret compound is epicatechin. This is what Hollenberg believes is the element responsible for the exceptionally low incidences of heart disease, stroke, cancer or diabetes among the Kunas.

Epicatechin is a flavonoid that has been recently celebrated for its antioxidant properties. Food developers have latched onto it to launch a whole new line in drinks, promoting the way that flavonoids that are found in green tea and red wine can improve blood flow.

Well, you can bet that's about to change. Expect to find chocolate drinks jostling their way onto the shelves as the new health beverages. The epicatechin flavonoid is apparently found at much more concentrated levels in cocoa than in those drinks and other foods that boast of antioxidants. Professor Hollenberg thinks epicatechin is so important it should be reclassified as a vitamin.

You can't just reach for the sugary brown stuff you've got stored in the back of your pantry, however. You have to invest in pure cocoa powder. The trouble is, flavonoids are bitter. It's OK when you're drinking red wine and green tea, but not great in cocoa. So food-industry producers strip it off the cocoa bean, removing the protective property from mass-produced cocoa.

Professor Hollenberg has been studying the Kuna for 16 years. And he's found when they move from the San Blas Islands north of Panama, settle in the cities and drink the same cocoa drinks we drink, their levels of good health are no longer sustained.
He said that when he measured their cocoa consumption, he found the Kuna people had "probably the most flavonoid-rich diet of any population."

A senior researcher at Britain's Institute of Food Research, Dr. Paul Kroon, backs him up. "The science does look robust," he told the Sunday Times. "It is indicative that epicatechin is the active compound."

Until we can reach for a canned or bottled cocoa-for-health drink, here is a recipe for individual servings of the best cocoa in the universe. Don't even think of having 40 of these a week unless you want to become extinct. One on your birthday or at Easter will do nicely. But it makes a terrific dessert when you have unexpected guests.

-- Break 1½ ounces of the best dark chocolate, at least 70 percent cocoa solids, into small pieces and put into a blender.
-- Fill a mug with boiling water and set aside.
-- Bring a cup of whole milk to the boil. Add half a teaspoon of vanilla extract, then pour the milk into the blender.
-- Whiz it up until the chocolate has melted completely, pour the boiling water out of the mug and fill the mug with the frothy dark chocolate soup.

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