Using three different types of cocoa powder for their experiments, the scientists tested the effects of chocolate consumption using a model digestive tract made of test tubes. The tubes were filled with typical bacteria colonies found in a healthy human digestive tract and exposed to chocolate for the purpose of initiating the anaerobic fermentation process, which is what converts food into digestible nutrients.
Cocoa powder, in case you were unaware, contains a variety of polyphenolic antioxidant compounds as well as dietary fiber, both of which are poorly digested and absorbed during the initial stages of consumption. But when these substances eventually reach the colon, they are apparently broken down by special bacteria that convert them into different compounds that the body can actually use.
“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,” stated John Finley, Ph.D., lead author of the study, during his presentation of the study. “These smaller polymers exhibit anti-inflammatory activity.”
Gut probiotics: your body’s natural food processors
Specific probiotics in the gut, the team discovered, literally consume ingested chocolate before it is fully metabolized in order to transform it into more basic nutrients that the body can use for health maintenance. In other words, beneficial gut bacteria act as microscopic food processors during the digestive process, converting whole foods into their many nutritional metabolites.
“The good microbes, such as Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, feast on chocolate,” stated Maria Moore, an undergraduate student and one of the study’s researchers, at the meeting. “When you eat dark chocolate, they grow and ferment it, producing compounds that are anti-inflammatory.”
Dr. Finley agrees, having observed that not only does the gut take charge in converting chocolate into what can only be described as anti-inflammatory medicine, but it also works with the prebiotic fibers found naturally in chocolate to accomplish this. It is these fibers, which the human body is unable to process on its own, that feed probiotic bacteria and lead to their multiplication and spread, which in turn boosts immunity and protects against disease.
“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.
Stick with all-natural cacao for maximum health benefits
Though the research team used cocoa powder for its experiments, the best way to take advantage of the health benefits of chocolate is to consume cacao, and preferably raw cacao. Many cocoa powders and chocolate products contain cocoa that has been treated with alkali, an agent that reduces its antioxidant potential. Many conventional chocolate products are also loaded with processed sugars and genetically modified (GM) soy lecithin, which can cause other health problems.
Besides containing the natural prebiotic fiber necessary for the activation of nutrient-producing probiotics in the gut — processed chocolate lacks this fiber — all-natural cacao is an excellent source of bioavailable magnesium, as well as mood-enhancing nutrients like phenylethylamine (PEA), anandamide and theobromine. Cacao is also highly neuroprotective, which means it can help protect against cognitive decline.
To learn more about the health benefits of cacao, check out this piece on cacao nibs published by The Huffington Post:
Sources for this article include: