Scientists Probe Dark Chocolate's Health Secrets
By Dr. Mercola
The health benefits of dark chocolate are all the rage right now, with increasing numbers of studies pointing to its rich concentrations of beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols.
This applies particularly to dark chocolate because it contains a higher concentration of cacao seeds than milk chocolate, and therein lies the secret to its health-promoting powers.
Cacao refers to the plant, a small evergreen tree of the species Theobroma cacao, which is cultivated for its seeds, also known as cacao beans or cocoa beans. The term "chocolate" refers to the solid food or candy made from a preparation of cacao seeds (typically roasted). If the cacao seeds are not roasted, then you have "raw chocolate," which is also typically sweetened.
Cocoa, on the other hand, refers to the powder made from roasted, husked, and ground cacao seeds, from which most of the fat has been removed. Knowing the meaning of these terms is important, because if you think you're improving your health by eating typical chocolate candies, you're being misled.
That being said, however, certain types of chocolate, as well as cocoa powder and cacao, are turning out to be powerful superfoods that rank right up there among the most anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods known to mankind.
Your Gut Bacteria Help Unlock Dark Chocolate's Anti-Inflammatory Powers
Research presented at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) claims to have unraveled the precise reason why dark chocolate is so beneficial. While it's known that cocoa powder is rich in antioxidants including catechin and epicatechin, along with a small amount of fiber, it was thought that these molecules were poorly digested and absorbed due to their large size.
The new study found, however, that your gut bacteria breaks down and ferments the components in dark chocolate, turning them into anti-inflammatory compounds that benefit your health. In particular, beneficial microbes including Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria "feasted" on chocolate, according to the researchers.
The study, which involved three cocoa powders tested in a model digestive tract, may help explain why chocolate has been found to be so good for your heart, as the anti-inflammatory compounds may reduce inflammation of cardiovascular tissue. The study's lead author explained:1
"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… When these compounds are absorbed by the body, they lessen the inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, reducing the long-term risk of stroke."
Eating Your Dark Chocolate with Prebiotics May Boost Its Benefits
The researchers suggested that consuming cocoa along with prebiotics may be one way to encourage the conversion of polyphenols into highly absorbable anti-inflammatory compounds in your stomach. Prebiotics are carbohydrates found in whole foods that you can't digest… but which beneficial bacteria can, acting as "food" for them.
Unprocessed whole foods, such as onions and garlic, are among the best prebiotics, so if you're eating right, you should be getting plenty of prebiotics. It would seem that taking steps to encourage healthful gut bacteria, in general, would also ensure that you have enough beneficial bacteria available to help break down and ferment the healthy substances in cocoa.
This includes not only avoiding sugar and grains but also eating naturally fermented foods and/or taking a high-quality probiotic supplement. One of the major results of eating a healthy diet like the one described in my nutrition plan is that you cause your beneficial gut bacteria to flourish, and they secondarily perform the real "magic" of restoring your health. Interestingly, the researchers also suggested consuming dark chocolate with antioxidant-rich solid fruits, such as pomegranate or acai, as another way to boost its health potential.