By Dr. Mercola
Snacking on chocolate may be one delectable way to boost your health, provided you choose the right type of chocolate, that is. Certain types of chocolate, as well as cocoa powder and cacao, rank right up there among the most anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods known to mankind.
It’s the antioxidant flavanols that are responsible for much of the health benefits, and recent research set out to determine which flavanols, in particular, may prevent certain health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Which Chocolate Flavanols Best Protect Against Diabetes and Obesity?
Consuming high levels of flavanols found in foods like chocolate is linked to reduced insulin resistance and improved glucose regulation, which suggests it may be protective against type 2 diabetes.1
Chocolate varies greatly in the different types of flavanols it contains, so researchers wanted to find out whether different cocoa flavanols were more beneficial than others.
For instance, both fermentation and processing of cocoa beans influences the final outcome of flavanols in the cocoa (cocoa refers to the powder made from roasted, husked, and ground cacao, or cocoa, seeds, from which most of the fat has been removed).
The researchers supplemented a high-fat diet for mice with monomeric, oligomeric, or polymeric procyandins (PCs), which are different types of flavanols. It turned out that oligomeric PCs were the most effective at both maintaining weight and improving glucose tolerance in the mice.4
Even more intriguing, the doses of flavanols used in the study were significantly lower than those used in past research, which suggests it may be more feasible to obtain health benefits from eating chocolate than was previously thought. The researchers noted:
“The oligomer-rich fraction proved to be most effective in preventing weight gain, fat mass, impaired glucose tolerance, and insulin resistance in this model… Oligomeric PCs appear to possess the greatest antiobesity and antidiabetic bioactivities of the flavanols in cocoa, particularly at the low doses employed for the present study.”5
The Amazing Role Your Gut Microbes Play in Unlocking Chocolate’s Benefits
Research presented at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) revealed a unique connection between the microbes in your gut and the health benefits of chocolate. While 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 break down and ferment 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:6
“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.”
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 avoiding sugar and grains, as well as 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.
Chocolate May Improve Your Health in Dozens of Ways
If the possibility that consuming chocolate may help you prevent diabetes and stay slim doesn’t excite you, perhaps the fact that accumulating scientific research has linked its consumption to over 40 distinct health benefits will.7
Among the most heavily researched is its link to heart health. For instance, when diabetic patients were given a special high-flavanol cocoa drink for one month, it brought their blood vessel function from severely impaired to normal. The improvement was actually as large as has been observed with exercise and many common diabetic medications.8
Small amounts of dark chocolate can also cut your risk of heart attack because, like aspirin, chocolate has a biochemical effect that reduces the clumping of platelets, which cause blood to clot.9 Platelet clumping can be fatal if a clot forms and blocks a blood vessel, causing a heart attack.
Another one of the ways chocolate may provide cardiovascular benefit is by assisting with nitric oxide metabolism.10 Nitric oxide protects your heart by relaxing your blood vessels and thereby lowering your blood pressure.
However, nitric oxide production produces adverse reactions and toxic metabolites, which must be neutralized by your body so they don't result in oxidative damage to your blood vessel lining (by peroxynitrite oxidation and nitration reactions). Cocoa polyphenols protect your body from these metabolites and help counter the typical age-related decline in nitric oxide production. The following table highlights even more benefits conferred by the cocoa bean.11
Anti-inflammatory Anti-carcinogenic Anti-thrombotic, including improving endothelial function Lowers Alzheimer's risk Anti-diabetic and anti-obesity Reduction in C-reactive protein Cardioprotective, including lowering blood pressure, improving lipid profile, and helping prevent atrial fibrillation Improved liver function for those with cirrhosis Neuroprotective Improves gastrointestinal flora Reduces stress hormones Reduces symptoms of glaucoma and cataracts Slows progression of periodontitis Improves exercise endurance May help extend lifespan Protects against preeclampsia in pregnant women
Which Type of Chocolate Is Best for Your Health?
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. It’s important to understand that consuming most commercially available milk chocolate candy is not going to give you the therapeutic benefits described above, as it contains both pasteurized milk and large quantities of sugar, which will significantly dampen its health benefits. White chocolate is also high in sugar and contains none of the phytonutrients, so it is not a good choice either.
The closer your cocoa is to its natural raw state, the higher its nutritional value. Ideally, your chocolate or cocoa should be consumed raw (cacao). When selecting chocolate, you can optimize its nutritional punch by looking for higher cacao and lower sugar content.
In general, the darker the chocolate, the higher the cacao. However, cacao is fairly bitter, so the higher the percentage cacao, the more bitter it is (the flavanols are what make the chocolate bitter, so manufacturers often remove them. But, it's those flavanols that are responsible for many of chocolate's health benefits). To counteract the bitterness, most chocolate is sweetened, so it's a matter of balancing nutritional benefit with palatability.
Although raw cacao is the most nutritious form, most of the health studies to date involve consumption of cocoa or chocolate, not raw cacao. And the results are STILL significantly positive. This fact suggests a good portion of the nutritional benefit of chocolate is retained after processing. Your goal then is to find a chocolate that's as minimally processed as possible, but still palatable. You don't want to eliminate too many of the health benefits by eating a product that contains a lot of sugar and chemicals. Choose chocolate with a cocoa/cacao percentage of about 70 or higher. If you can tolerate the flavor of raw cacao, however, then that's the absolute best option. Dark chocolate – as high in cacao and as bitter as you can stand -- is your best option.
Eat Chocolate Two to Three Times a Day for the Most Benefit
In the video above, Dr. Beatrice Golomb discusses how to identify a high-quality chocolate and how to determine your optimal chocolate “dose.” In general, it seems preferable to consume smaller amounts of chocolate at more frequent intervals, much like the principle of split dosing for supplements, in order to ensure a steadier stream of nutrients in your bloodstream.
According to Dr. Golomb, studies show daily chocolate consumption in divided doses (two to three times per day) is probably beneficial, as long as you aren't going overboard in quantity, and as long as you're eating high-quality chocolate.