If there’s one thing that’s music to the ears of most dieters and people trying to eat healthy, it’s that dark chocolate is good for you. This extremely popular, decadent treat is a favorite for many and a sweet indulgence that serves as a great daily reward for the health-conscious eater.
Dark chocolate has long been touted to possess health benefits because of its antioxidant properties. It contains the flavonoids catechin and epicatechin, while also supplying a small amount of dietary fiber. These compounds work together to benefit heart health by limiting inflammation, encouraging blood flow and helping with the removal of waste from your body.
And although this information has been known for some time, new research has explained how dark chocolate offers these benefits. A research team from Louisiana State University discovered specific gut bacteria that breaks down the chocolate and ferments it into anti-inflammatory compounds. In turn, these compounds promote heart health when released into the body.
Catechin and epicatechin are found in cocoa powder, which is the main ingredient in chocolate. To get the most benefit from chocolate, you want to eat darker varieties, containing at least 75% of pure cocoa. Milk chocolate, for example, does not yield anywhere near the same benefits of dark chocolate—and the darker you go, the better.
The antioxidants mentioned above are rather difficult for the body to break down, but when they get to the colon, certain microbes are able to effectively deconstruct them, ferment them, and utilize their anti-inflammatory properties to improve heart health. Over time, these anti-inflammatories can lower the risk for serious conditions like hypertension and stroke.
When the fiber in the cocoa is fermented in the colon, it is broken down into smaller compounds, which are then absorbed more easily to deliver the anti-inflammatory benefits throughout the body. Inflammation is a common problem in people with diabetes, heart problems, obesity, various cancers, and a number of other health problems.
The lead doctor on the research team said combining cocoa’s fiber content with prebiotics—non-digestible food that stimulate microbial activity—can contribute to improvements in overall health and promote antioxidants in the stomach to be distributed as anti-inflammatories.
Examples of prebiotic foods are garlic, whole wheat flour, asparagus, banana, and a number of fruits and vegetables. Combining a serving of dark chocolate with some pomegranate, for example, would be an ideal way to utilize the health benefits of dark chocolate. Other fruits would be acceptable, too.
Now, just because there are health benefits associated with dark chocolate, it’s important to keep portion sizes in mind. Eating a big chocolate bar per day, for example, is too much. Chocolate is dense in calories and high in sugar, so try and keep servings to a couple of small pieces. Two to four squares from a dark chocolate bar should be your goal.
Roberts, M., “Gut Bacteria Turn Dark Chocolate ‘Healthy’” BBC web site, March 18, 2014; http://www.bbc.com/news/health-26626507, last accessed March 25, 2014.