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Study to test ‘chocolate’ for heart health

Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014 11:32 a.m. CDT

It won’t be nearly as much fun as eating candy bars, but a big study is being launched to see if pills containing the nutrients in dark chocolate can help prevent heart attacks and strokes.

The pills are so packed with nutrients that you’d have to eat a gazillion candy bars to get the amount being tested in this study, which will enroll 18,000 men and women nationwide.

“People eat chocolate because they enjoy it,” not because they think it’s good for them, and the idea of the study is to see whether there are health benefits from chocolate’s ingredients minus the sugar and fat, said Dr. JoAnn Manson, preventive medicine chief at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The study will be the first large test of cocoa flavanols, which in previous smaller studies improved blood pressure, cholesterol, the body’s use of insulin, artery health and other heart-related factors.

A second part of the study will test multivitamins to help prevent cancer. Earlier research suggested this benefit but involved just older, unusually healthy men. Researchers want to see if multivitamins lower cancer risk in a broader population.

The study will be sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and Mars Inc., maker of M&M’s and Snickers bars. Participants will get dummy pills or two capsules a day of cocoa flavanols for four years, and neither they nor the study leaders will know who is taking what during the study. The flavanol capsules are coated and have no taste, said Manson, who tried them herself.

In the other part of the study, participants will get dummy pills or daily multivitamins containing a broad range of nutrients.

Manson also is leading a government-funded study testing vitamin D pills in 26,000 men and women. Results are expected in three years.

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