The Sweet Side of Dark Chocolate for Gut Health.

Dark chocolate is my favorite food group. Are you with me?

Good news…dark chocolate not only comes with a delicious taste but offers up some health perks for your gut.  And as many of you know by now, dark chocolate is low FODMAP in a 30 g portion (about two tablespoons of semi-sweet morsels). Did you know semi-sweet chocolate is a type of dark chocolate?

The polyphenols in cocoa and chocolate can function as prebiotics (food for our beneficial gut microbes); increasing specific microbes associated with health benefits. The prebiotics in cocoa enhance growth of gut microbes associated with initiating anti-inflammatory pathways in the body. Dark chocolate and cocoa provide health benefits beyond the gut. Cocoa polyphenols induce release of nitric oxide that promotes vasodilation of the blood vessels resulting in heart health benefits. Dark chocolate intake has been associated with reducing blood pressure too.

There are different polyphenols in cocoa including catechins, anthocyanins and procyanidins. Procyanidins provide the majority of antioxidant activity in cocoa products. The polyphenols in cocoa are derived from cocoa beans. Cocoa liquor is the paste from cocoa beans (also known as cocoa nibs–shown in the middle of the above picture) and contains cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Cocoa liquor is what is referred to as “percent cacao” on food packaging and it contains many bioactive compounds. Cocoa butter contains high amounts of fat, whereas the non-fat cocoa solids contain mostly vitamins, minerals, fiber, and the polyphenols. Chocolate is a combo of cocoa liquor, cocoa butter and sugar.

In one human study (many diet studies are performed on animals) consuming a high cocoa drink for 4 weeks increased probiotic gut microbes of the Lactobacillus species and Bifidobacterium species in comparison to a drink with little cocoa in it.

Chocolate is mineral-rich providing:

  • Magnesium, an important mineral for protein synthesis, muscle relaxation, and energy production and appears to have anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Potassium, an important mineral (and electrolyte) that helps maintain healthy blood pressure, build protein and break down carbohydrates.
  • Copper, a trace mineral that is part of many enzymes and is important in helping our body properly utilize iron.

The bran of the cocoa bean is fiber-rich.  Some fiber remains in store-bought cocoa products, though the fiber content ranges quite a bit. Semi-sweet chocolate and milk chocolate contain about 1 gram per serving.  Unsweetened cocoa powder contains almost 2 grams of fiber per tablespoon. Most of the fiber in cocoa is insoluble fiber, meaning it is not rapidly fermented but gut microbes.

Of course, chocolate candy bars do contain sugar…so keep your portion in check. I like to indulge in a piece of dark chocolate everyday! 🙂

Interested in more reading on this topic, check out the references below that provide greater details on chocolate consumption and health.

References:

Magrone T, et al. Cocoa and Dark Chocolate Polyphenols: From Biology to Clinical Applications Frontiers in Immunology.. 2017; 8: 677.

Katz DL, Doughty K, Ali A. Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling. 2011;15(10):2779-2811.

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