Healthy chocolate and healthy bugs?
When the healthy "bugs" (bacteria) that naturally live in our intestines are out of balance, we are at increased risk for illness and chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Types of bacteria that support health include bifidobacteria and lactobacilli strains, which may help with immune system support and prevent the growth of bad bugs in the gut, and help synthesize certain vitamins that support the body's functions.
In this study, 22 healthy participants were randomly assigned to consume a high-cocoa flavanol (494 mg cocoa flavanols per day) or a low-cocoa flavanol (23 mg cocoa flavanols per day) drink, daily for four weeks. Researchers measured the number of certain types of bacteria from the participants' intestines before and after the intervention and measured blood markers associated with chronic disease.
Fabulous flavonals promote beneficial bacteria
People who drank the high-cocoa flavanol drink had increased numbers of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli in their intestines compared with the people who drank the low-cocoa flavanol drink.
Compared with people who drank the low-cocoa flavanol drink, people who drank the high-cocoa flavanol drink also had decreased numbers of a bacterial strain (clostridia) associated with chronic diseases such as colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.
Markers of health in the body (biomarkers), such as plasma triglyceride and C-reactive protein levels, also decreased significantly in the high-flavanol group compared with the low-flavanol group. This is an important finding because lower levels of both of these markers are important for preventing chronic disease.
The authors of the study comment, "Epidemiologic data has long supported that plant-based diets are strongly associated with improved gastrointestinal health. Although further research is required, the results of the current study suggest that the phytonutrient components of plants [such as cocoa] may be important contributors to these benefits."
More facts about flavanols
- Flavanol benefits. Flavanols are natural plant compounds that are important to a healthy diet. Prior research suggests that flavanol-rich foods including cocoa and chocolate, apples, and red wine in moderation, may improve health. Specifically, studies have shown that flavanol-rich foods may help boost the immune system, improve cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of clotting, improve vascular health, and improve insulin sensitivity.
- Choose your cocoa wisely. Remember that not all cocoa is healthful. Some cocoa on the grocery store shelves is loaded with additives. Read food labels and choose items with the highest amount of nutrients and the least amount of sugar, fat, and other additives.
- Eat a balanced diet. We cannot live on cocoa or red wine alone! It's important that they are part of a balanced diet full of fruits and veggies and whole grains.
(Am J Clin Nutr 2011;93:62-72.)