For chocolate lovers (and chocolate makers) it has been a great decade or so. Scientific research continues to prove what our brains have been saying for years; chocolate really IS good for us.
Research over the past decade or so has studied dark chocolate and its polyphenolic compounds, such as catechin and epicatechin, for their effects on inflammation, and cardiac and endothelial cell function. Today, from the American Chemical Society meeting in Dallas, TX, we learn new details about how dark chocolate brings its health benefits.
Before beneficial compounds in dark chocolate can reach the heart and other tissues in the body, digestive processes must occur to release the beneficial compounds from the chocolate.
Researcher John Finley and cohorts from Louisiana State University created a model digestive system by which to study what happens when cocoa combines with typical gut bacteria.
Their research showed that bacterial species in the colon ferment the fiber found in cocoa, which in turn aids in digestion of the larger polyphenols in cocoa, into smaller, more easily absorbed molecules. These smaller molecules, the catechins and epicatechins then enter the bloodstream and exert their anti-inflammatory effects.
Finley emphasized the role of dietary fiber, such as the fiber in the cocoa powders tested in this research, in the digestion process. He noted that prebiotics, carbohydrates in foods like raw garlic or cooked whole wheat flour, while not digested by humans, aid digestion and absorption of healthful food components, in this case polyphenols in dark chocolate.
Prebiotics feed the beneficial gut bacteria, which digest and release polyphenols. Prebiotics also help good gut bacteria grow and outcompete unwanted, nonbeneficial bacteria in the gut.
In fact, Finley recommends a bit of solid (fiber-containing) fruit with your dark chocolate, maybe a little pomegranate, or acai, to enhance the benefits of the dark chocolate.
While this chocolate lover has always thought of chocolate-dipped strawberries as oversold, I might have to rethink the combination. Perhaps the fiber of fresh strawberries combined with 60-70% cocoa-containing dark chocolate is the perfect combination for making some beneficial microbes happy.