Written By: Brittani Kolasinski (BHSc Nut, AdvDip NutMed)
There’s no typo in this heading – chocolate can benefit our gut health, and the below article is a basic summary of recent evidence that supports this. Links to the paper will be attached at the end for further reading.
Firstly, to clarify, when I say chocolate – I’m not referring to Cadbury. No, that is confectionary – a very different thing. Chocolate is cocoa, or cacao. The real deal!
The benefits that chocolate has on the gut is due to the influence it has on our microbiota. The large number of beneficial bacteria that live within our intestines, predominantly within our colon – the furthest part of the intestine.
The microbes are referred to as ‘probiotics’, whereas prebiotics are components of foods, such as specific fibres, that act as a food source for the probiotics. The bacteria feed off these prebiotics, in doing so they cause a fermentation to occur which produces substances that play a beneficial and protective role for the body. These prebiotics play a role in changing the human gut microbiota, in a positive way. There is a direct correlation and association between changes to the microbiota and development of human diseases including ageing, oxidative stress, blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, mental health disorders and even cancer.
Chocolate acts as a prebiotic. It is also is a rich source of antioxidant containing polyphenols including procyanidins, catechin and epicatechin oligomers - similar to those found within green tea. Chocolate has been shown to affect the same aforementioned human disorders that are linked with alterations to gut microbiota.
As an example, a double-blind, randomized, controlled clinical trial compared microbial diversity and quantity between individuals given either a high-cocoa flavonol drink or a low cocoa flavonol drink. It was observed that there was a significant increase in probiotic strains Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, with a significant decrease in Clostridia (Tzounis et al, 2010).
Clostridia is needed in small amounts and may help protect against food allergies, however its classed as a Firmicutes which is associated in the literature with increased BMI and obesity, where as having lower levels of firmicutes and higher levels of Bacteroidetes can be seen in lean individuals, or even when weight-loss occurs in obese subjects
(Koliada et al, 2017)
Also to note were the additional changes reported, including decreases in C-Reactive protein (an inflammatory marker).
Further studies have indicated that lower numbers of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli with an increase in Clostridia can be seen within patients diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), with consideration of the aforementioned clinical trial outcomes, it is possible that chocolate might be considered as part of a treatment plan for IBS sufferers (Roberfroid et al, 2010).
What's more is that the action of the polyphenols creates a hormetic effect, also referred to hormesis [Hormesis boosts the expression of antioxidant genes through exposing yourself to something that would otherwise be toxic - which is the action of these catechins and polyphenols that are found within chocolate].
Now do we really need an excuse to eat chocolate? I think not!
Yours in (gut) health,
Koliada, A., Syzenko, G., Moseiko, V., Budovska, L., Puchkov, K., Perederiy, V., … Vaiserman, A. (2017). Association between body mass index and Firmicutes/Bacteroidetes ratio in an adult Ukrainian population. BMC Microbiology, 17, 120. http://doi.org/10.1186/s12866-017-1027-1
Roberfroid, M., Gibson, G. R., Hoyles, L., McCartney, A. L., Rastall, R., Rowland, I., ... & Guarner, F. (2010). Prebiotic effects: metabolic and health benefits. British Journal of Nutrition, 104(S2), S1-S63.
Tzounis, X., Rodriguez-Mateos, A., Vulevic, J., Gibson, G. R., Kwik-Uribe, C., & Spencer, J. P. (2010). Prebiotic evaluation of cocoa-derived flavanols in healthy humans by using a randomized, controlled, double-blind, crossover intervention study–. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 93(1), 62-72.