Cocoa beans
Cocoa beans and fruits. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
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It has long been said that dark chocolate is good for our health, though there has never been a strong scientific basis for the claim – until now.

Researchers at Louisiana State University have discovered a stomach bacteria that apparently breaks down chocolate and ferments it into anti-inflammatory compounds, providing significant heart and other benefits.

The research findings were presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in in Dallas, Texas, and reported in Scientific American.

"We found that there are two kinds of microbes in the gut: the 'good' ones and the 'bad' ones," explained researcher Maria Moore. "The good microbes, such as Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, feast on chocolate, grow and ferment it, and produce compounds that are anti-inflammatory."

"When these compounds are absorbed by the body, they lessen the inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, reducing the long-term risk of stroke," said lead researcher Dr. John Finley. Finley noted that the study is the first to examine the effects of dark chocolate on various types of stomach bacteria.

The professor and his team analyzed three cocoa powders using a model digestive tract designed to simulate normal digestion. Cocoa powder is one of the main ingredients in chocolate, and contains several antioxidant compounds, such as catechin and epicatechin, as well as a small amount of dietary fiber.

While both catechin and epicatechin are difficult for the body to initially digest and absorb, this changes when they reach the colon, as "desirable microbes" take over, Finley said. "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."

Finley also remarked that combining cocoa's fiber content with prebiotics can contribute to overall health and help change antioxidants in the stomach into anti-inflammatory compounds. Prebiotics are food components found in raw garlic, whole wheat flour and other foods humans cannot digest but are heavily favored by gut bacteria.

"When you ingest prebiotics, the beneficial gut microbial population increases and overwhelms any undesirable microbes in the gut, like those that cause stomach problems," Finley said. He also noted that combining dark chocolate with solid fruits such as pomegranates is even more beneficial to health, and is likely the future of the industry.

Another recent study on dark chocolate and heart health found eating the stuff in moderation can reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, or the thickening and hardening of the arteries, by restoring arterial flexibility and preventing white blood cells from sticking to blood vessel walls. The study was conducted by a research team at the Top Institute Food and Nutrition and the Division of Human Nutrition at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and published in The FASEB Journal.