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Mystery of dark chocolate health benefits solved

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Why cocoa in chocolate is so healthy uncovered.

Researchers from the American Chemical Society (ACS) presented findings this week showing exactly why dark chocolate is heart healthy. According to scientists, bacteria in the gut love dark chocolate as much as we do. But what do gut microbes and coca in dark chocolate have to do with the heart?

How dark chocolate lessens chances of heart disease

When we eat dark chocolate bacteria in the gut feast on the treat causing it to ferment - specifically the good bacteria Bifidobacterium and lactic acid.

Gut bacteria break down catechin and epicatechin that are polyphenols so they can be absorbed.

It turns out the compounds that result from fermentation of chocolate in the gut are anti-inflammatory. So-called bad bacteria in the gut like E. coli and Clostridia cause inflammation, gas and bloating, explained Maria Moore, an undergraduate student and one of the study's researchers from Louisiana State University.

"When these compounds are absorbed by the body, they lessen the inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, reducing the long-term risk of stroke," said John Finley, Ph.D., the study's lead investigator. Finley said the study is the first to look at how dark chocolate affects gut bacteria.

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The study

The scientists tested three types of cocoa powder for their study that they put in test tubes modified to simulate human digestion. Then they exposed the non-digestible compounds in chocolate to fecal matter to find out what happened next.

Read the many health benefits associated with dark chocolate

"In our study we found that the fiber is fermented and the large polyphenolic polymers are metabolized to smaller molecules, which are more easily absorbed," Finley said. The smaller polymers are what contribute to chocolate's anti-inflammatory properties.

Eating your chocolate with other foods that boost beneficial gut bacteria could confer even greater health benefits, Finley said. Examples include eating solid fruits like pomegranate or acai with cocoa.

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Combining other foods that gut bacteria enjoy eating is also another way to boost the health benefits of chocolate. The researchers suggest the food industry could combine cocoa fiber with prebiotics like those found in whole wheat and garlic. Doing so would help reduce the number of undesirable microbes in the gut that can cause stomach problems. You can also prebiotic supplements.