For a long time now, dietitians have sung the praises of dark chocolate as a health food, but ever wonder why it’s so good for us? It turns out, it’s probably at least partly to do with the family of microbes living in our guts.
Researchers from Louisiana State University believe they have found evidence that microbes in our bodies such as Bifidobacterium break down the cocoa solids we cannot on our own digest and in so doing, ferment it. This releases a number of beneficial compounds with anti-inflammatory properties that may keep our vital organs healthy.
Researcher Dr. John Finley is quoted as saying “We found that the fiber is fermented and large polyphenolic polymers are metabolized to smaller molecules, which are more easily absorbed. These smaller polymers exhibit anti-inflammatory activity. When these compounds are absorbed by the body, they lessen the inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, reducing the long-term risk of stroke.”
To ascertain this, Finley and his students first set about creating conditions similar to those found in the human digestive system. They first used test tubes full of enzymes to mimic how our food is saturated in digestive juices in the upper digestive tract, and then bathed three different types of cocoa solids in those enzymes until all that could be “digested” at this stage was gone.
To create conditions like those found in the lower intestine and the gut microbes waiting there, the researchers needed some stand-ins for the microbes and Finley’s students were happy to oblige. They offered up their own feces so that gut microbes could be harvested. Under test conditions the microbes then set about digesting what was left of the cocoa solids. The researchers were able to observe how the microbes took what is known as flavonols (some of which are found in green tea) and fermented them into smaller compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties and can be absorbed back into the bloodstream.
What’s more, the researchers believe there may be several ways to raise the amount of anti-inflammatories dark chocolate provides, for instance by combining dark chocolate with certain carbohydrate rich foods like raw garlic and cooked whole wheat flour: humans can’t digest things like whole wheat flour very well but the so-called gut microbes certainly can, and that would increase their anti-inflammatory output so to speak.
Furthermore, the researchers believe that combining dark chocolate with solid fruits like pomegranates and acai berries would also increase the fermentation and help deliver more circulating anti-inflammatories into the body. The researchers do note, however, that most if not all candy bars do not contain enough cocoa solids to create these benefits and carry a number of ingredients that would be detrimental to our health.
Despite the number of approximations the team had to make, researchers unconnected with the work believe that the Louisiana team have created a plausible scenario for why, and crucially how, dark chocolate can be good for us.
Previous research has shown that people who eat a moderate amount of dark chocolate with relative frequency tend to have lower BMIs, and that dark chocolate can be linked to lower risks of heart disease, better brain health and better control over the body’s blood sugar.
If you needed any excuse to go out and buy dark chocolate, this certainly is a good one, but make sure to choose a dark chocolate that comes from sustainable, ethical sources to ensure that you’re not the only one getting the benefits, but those involved in the production process are too. You can find information on sustainable sources of chocolate here.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
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