Chocolate: The Tale of Two

Have you ever wondered what happens to chocolate once the savory and fleeting rendezvous with the taste buds has elapsed?  As a nutritionist, I cannot help but ask two questions of food’s endogenous fates, and for the purpose of this article, chocolate: (1) What does the chocolate do to the body, and (2) What does the body do to the chocolate? 

The endogenous dynamics of cocoa in the human body are very complex, so I will focus on two major classes of constituents—the methylxanthines, which include caffeine, and the proanthocyanidins, which are a class of polyphenols.  The former underpin my ability to blissfully focus at the moment; the latter is quenching free radicals, balancing my gut microflora and improving the ways in which my cells metabolize the coinciding sugar I ingested.   Taken regularly, cocoa products can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome.  These health benefits are ascribed to proanthocyanidins, large chains of polyphenols.  These compounds have attracted considerable interest in nutrition and integrative medicine due to their cardioprotective, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and anticancer actions. Food sources include wine, fruits, cocoa, nuts, seeds and botanical medicines; apples, chocolate, and grapes are the primary sources in the American diet.

And just how does our body benefit from the positive effect of the polyphenol, proanthocyanidins that are in such abundance in cocoa? It turns out that the vast majority of proanthocyanidins from cocoa, or from any food, never leave the gut—they are simply too large to be absorbed.  Thus, many of their mechanisms are believed to be confined to local effects within the digestive tract.  Here, they modify gut microbial populations to relay broad systemic signals that support prevention of disease.  Indeed, the clinical indications for probiotic therapy, that is the oral supplementation of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, have begun to overlap the range of cardiovascular, metabolic and anti-inflammatory utility of cocoa. In simple terms, cocoa is prebiotic and synbiotic. Synbiotics are a synergistic blend of prebiotics and probiotics used to treat irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.  Preliminary studies suggest its effects may be potentially selective to the effect of favoring the survival of friendly bacteria and reduce the proliferation of certain unwanted bacteria. 

As it appears, we may be looking at cocoa and other polyphenols to comprise the next generation of prebiotics.  They are effective at low doses, are well tolerated, are easily obtained from the diet, and offer a wide range of health benefits. In simple terms, you are supporting digestive health, and many of its systemic ramifications, by consuming cocoa.  The darker the chocolate, the better; not only is polyphenol content generally higher, but the energizing, mind-focusing, wonderful agent is present in higher doses - our beloved caffeine.