While a study proclaiming the benefits of dark chocolate is hardly necessary to convince us to eat it, new research presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society may make us feel better about eating that truffle after lunch. It seems bacteria in the stomach eat the chocolate and produce anti-inflammatory compounds that are beneficial for the heart.
Flavanols - naturally occurring antioxidants - are plentiful in cocoa products, but until now, scientists have not been clear on what happens to them in the lower gastrointestinal tract.
There have been many health benefits linked to chocolate, but the exact reason for these have eluded the medical community for some time.
In order to study the effects of dark chocolate on stomach bacteria, researchers from Louisiana State University tested three cocoa powders using a series of modified test tubes, which modeled a human digestive tract. They say their setup simulated normal digestion.
Maria Moore, one of the researchers, reminds us that for the gut, there are "good" guys and "bad" guys - that is, good and bad bacteria.
"The good microbes, such as Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, feast on chocolate," she says. "When you eat dark chocolate, they grow and ferment it, producing compounds that are anti-inflammatory."
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John Finley, PhD, who led the study, explains that cocoa powder contains flavanol compounds of catechin and epicatechin, as well as a small amount of dietary fiber.
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Though both of these are poorly digested and absorbed, the good microbes go to work on them when they enter the colon.
After subjecting the non-digestible materials to anaerobic fermentation - using human fecal bacteria in the modified test tubes - Finley says they observed certain changes:
"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. These smaller polymers exhibit anti-inflammatory activity."
He says that when these compounds decrease inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, this reduces the risk of stroke.
Additionally, eating prebiotics - foods not digested that are beneficial for good gut bacteria - along with the fiber in cocoa could improve overall health by converting polyphenolics in the stomach into compounds that act as anti-inflammatories, the researchers say.
Prebiotics are found naturally in foods, such as raw garlic or cooked whole wheat flour, and they are also available as dietary supplements.
"When you ingest prebiotics, the beneficial gut microbial population increases and outcompetes any undesirable microbes in the gut, like those that cause stomach problems."
He also suggests combining dark chocolate with solid fruits such as pomegranates and acai for further health benefits, a medical recommendation many will be happy to follow.
Speaking with Medical News Today, Finley said he and his team plan to conduct clinical trials to confirm these benefits and identify specific microbes that are increased by prebiotic effects.
We recently reported on another study that suggested dark chocolate has heart benefits. Researchers from that paper suggested the dark treat reduces risk of atherosclerosis by restoring flexibility to the arteries and preventing white blood cells from sticking to blood vessel walls.