Why dark chocolate is good for our gut, heart (and taste buds)

They’re good for you, they’re bad for you. Dark chocolate, red wine and berries have been hailed as heart-healthy foods, but a new study suggests that the compounds at play don’t really help at all. File/Getty Images

TORONTO — If your sweet tooth is satisfied by a dose of dark chocolate, now researchers suggest that your gut also feasts on bacterias in the chocolate that improve heart health.

Dark chocolate is spending some time in the spotlight this week. On Monday, Boston researchers launched a years-long study that would have thousands of patients taking dark chocolate extract pills to see if the food lowers heart attack and stroke risk.

By Tuesday, another group of scientists said that bacteria in our stomach gobble up the chocolate and spit out anti-inflammatory compounds that are heart protectors.

READ MORE: Big study will test chocolate extract pills for heart health

Science has pointed to dark chocolate as a helper in lowering blood pressure, managing cholesterol levels and improving heart health. Unlike milk chocolate that’s mostly built with sugar and milk, dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants and flavonoids, which fight damage to your body’s cells.

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In the latest findings, Louisiana State University says that there are two types of microbes in the gut: “good ones” and “bad ones.”

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“The good microbes, such as Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, feast on chocolate. When you eat dark chocolate, they grow and ferment it, producing compounds that are anti-inflammatory,” study researcher, Maria Moore, said.

Those compounds are then absorbed by the rest of your body.

“They lessen the inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, reducing the long-term risk of stroke,” Dr. John Finley, who led the study, said in a statement.

(Cocoa powders’ key ingredients — namely polyphenolic compounds and dietary fibre — are hard to digest and absorb. But these gut microbes take over and break down these compounds so they’re easier to soak up, the researchers suggest.)

Their findings are based on testing three cocoa powders and simulating the digestive process in lab testing. Dark chocolate contains the same antioxidant compounds as the cocoa powders.

READ MORE: Does eating chocolate cut risk of stroke?

Finley even suggests that the health benefits of dark chocolate are heightened when combined with solid fruits like pomegranate and acai — both recognized as antioxidant powerhouses. He said the next step is for the food industry to make that pairing happen.

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His findings were presented at the American Chemical Society Tuesday night where thousands of scientists are sharing their research throughout the week.

Right now, Boston researchers are working with Mars Inc., the maker of M&M’s and Snickers, on a four-year study that would feed chocolate extract pills to about 18,000 participants.

The pills are so packed with nutrients that you’d have to eat a gazillion candy bars to get the amount being tested in the study pitched as the first large test of cocoa flavanols. In smaller studies, the chocolate flavanols have been linked to improved blood pressure, lower cholesterol and better insulin management.

The researchers want to know just how healthy dark chocolate is when it’s completely stripped of the milk, sugar and processing. Mars has already patented a way to extract flavanols from cocoa in high concentration, then put them in capsules.

“People eat chocolate because they enjoy it,” not because they think it’s good for them, and the idea of the study is to see whether there are health benefits from chocolate’s ingredients minus the sugar and fat, said Dr. JoAnn Manson, preventive medicine chief at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

– With files from the Associated Press


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