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Benefit of eating chocolate require a key ingredient and a healthy gut

The debate over whether or not consuming dark chocolate promotes health and how it does this may be closer to a resolution, or at least for one component of dark chocolate; cocoa powder. For centuries there have been anecdotal stories of the benefits of chocolate. One source included such benefits as reducing the risk of diabetes, protecting against UV radiation, decreasing appetite, improving vision and reducing blood pressure.

Benefit of eating chocolate require a key ingredient and a healthy gut
©Wikipedia Commons/TimVickers; micrograph by Volker Brinkmann

Studies on the consumption of milk chocolate and dark chocolate have drawn favorable conclusions and others have not been able to replicate the same findings. There has been speculation on what might contribute to any beneficial outcomes in some individuals and not in others. Often there are confounding factors not considered in these studies such as other dietary factors, health issues, medication, age, gender, body chemistry and gut flora, that could influence the outcomes. Some researchers release preliminary results but never publish the results in a peer review publication. A previous article compared some of the research and counter contrary opinions.

Some of the research studies previous looking at the benefits of chocolate all have one commonality ... the higher the cocoa bean content, the darker the chocolate and the greater the benefits. The beneficial component some of this research focused on were the flavonols, catechin (also found in unfermented green teas, Oolong tea, raw apples, apricots, nectarines, pears and plums with skin, blackberries, red raspberries, cranberries, cherries, barley, raisins, rhubarb and broad beans ), and epicatechin, also found in unfermented green teas, red wine, and many fruits, such as apples), both antioxidants. According to one study reported on The National Institute of Health's, US National Library of Medicine website, less than 50% of the epicatechin is absorbed in the small intestine. As the amount of cocoa bean content increases so does the quantity of the antioxidants. Catechin is metabolized in the small intestine and liver.

Depending on just how dark the dark chocolate is and how much you consume, one source reported that dark chocolate can have over twice the amount of catechin found in berries. Another source was more specific noting that 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of blackberries contained about about 40 milligrams of catechin whereas 100 grams of raspberries and cherries contained about 6 and 8 milligrams. The same source reported that 100 grams of dark chocolate provides about 50 milligrams of catechins, "while a similar amount of milk chocolate contains about 8 milligrams." Consuming 3.5 ounces of chocolate is also going to deliver a bunch of calories.

In a special feature article in the December 2013 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter, the author David Schardt, referenced the European Food Safety Authority and concluding that it would take 200 mg of flavanols to improve blood flow. Here is what it would take to get 200 mg. from chocolate sources;

  • 10.5 ounces of milk chocolate - 1,595 calories
  • 1 cup chocolate syrup - 840 calories
  • 2 ounces of dark chocolate* - 320 calories
  • 1.5 ounces of semisweet chocolate chips** - 200 calories
  • 0.50 ounces of baking chocolate ** - 70 calories
  • 1.75 Tablespoons of cocoa - 21 calories (pure cocoa, not a mix and not Dutch Processed which, according to Schardt "slashes the flavanols to about 3 mg/serving."

*Dark chocolate can range from 45-85% cocoa content (155-170 calories/ounce). **Baking chocolate comes in 3 varieties; semisweet, bittersweet and unsweetened (142, 154 and 174 calories/ounce respectively). Source for calories.

Studies have looked at the type of bacteria in the stomach, both good and bad, and their relationship to the metabolism of flavonols. Human bacteria also known as human microbiome or human microbiota, including up to 1,000 different species of bacteria in the gut alone, and is also the focus of research in the fight against obesity for several research projects. Some of these microbes are beneficial, others are not.

A component of the immune system, the beneficial microorganisms help maintain a balance between the good and the bad by assisting in the fight against harmful germs and other organisms by "revving up or dampening down our immune system." Some of the beneficial microorganisms have their own arsenal of antibiotics and are thought to play a role in developing or educating our immune cells in identifying and eliminating harmful organisms.

A news release from the American Chemical Society presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society reported on science may now explain what happens when cocoa powder enters the colon of our digestive system that can benefit cardiovascular tissue. This release was based on preliminary findings of a scientific study led by John Finley, PhD professor at Louisiana State University, department of food science. Findings reported that certain beneficial bacteria found in the colon consume and ferment the cocoa power. The beneficial good microbes in the colon, including Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria are associated with ant-inflammatory properties, while the non beneficial bad bacteria such as Clostridia and some E. coli are associated with inflammation. The compounds produced by the anaerobic fermentation of the good bacteria are anti-inflammatory. The source of the bacteria used in the study came from human fecal material. Finley was quoted as saying “When these compounds are absorbed by the body, they lessen the inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, reducing the long-term risk of stroke." He went on to explain that it is the fiber in the cocoa that is fermented and that several antioxidant, compounds such as catechin and epicatechin are, "metabolized to smaller molecules, which are more easily absorbed." It is these smaller molecules that ” exhibit anti-inflammatory activity.”

Previous studies on the consumption of cocoa powder in dark chocolate have looked the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics on the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. The release also reported on Finley noting that combining the fiber in cocoa with prebiotics is likely to improve a person’s overall health and help convert polyphenolics in the stomach into anti-inflammatory compounds. “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 added. "Prebiotics are carbohydrates found in foods like raw garlic and cooked whole wheat flour that humans can’t digest but that good bacteria like to eat. This food for your gut’s helpful inhabitants also comes in dietary supplements."

If you are considering getting your antioxidant/ant-inflammatory boost from chocolate but would like to keep the calorie, fat and sugar levels low, consider going straight to the source; cocoa powder. Cocoa powder can be added to recipes you are already preparing or foods you are already eating such as smoothies, yogurt, muffins and even chili. Another option - Cacao Nibs - made from 100% pure crushed beans.

A food source poor in one antioxident may be higer in another so consuming a variety of antioxident rich food is important. Evidence points to eating a variety of antioxidant and fiber rich foods along with prebiotics and probiotics to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in our digestive track. An abundance of healthy bacteria aid in the digestion, absorption and availability of antioxidants. It pays to have a healthy digestive track.

This information is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical/nutritional/fitness advice. Information presented is subject to change as additional discoveries are made or additional research is published.

Additional information: Click here to discover how much chocolate is enough and how much may be too much. Check below for additional articles.

Sources: Delzenne et al. Microbial Cell Factories 2011, Gut microbiota and gastrointestinal health, Science 341: 1079, 2013; Nature 457: 480, 2009; Science 341: 1069, 2013; Nature 444: 1022, 2006; Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 94: 58, 2011, Nature-International Weekly Journal of Science, The National Center for Biological Information, The National Institute of Health, US National Library of medicine,,, American Chemical Society,,,

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