Many of us love chocolate, but also many of us avoid it due to its caloric value – particularly if we’re desperately trying to lose weight. However, chocolate has found its place in the media due to the antioxidant properties found in the cocoa bean. But now new science has found that the bacteria that live the gut may also love the stuff!
Chocolate with a high cocoa content (around 70% or greater, or chocolate where cocoa mass is the first ingredient) has been the subject of quite a lot of research lately.
It has been discovered that the type of antioxidant compound found in cocoa beans, known as flavonoids, could have beneficial effects such as good heart health, cancer protection and improved mental function (1).
Studies are now suggesting that chocolate consumption also appears to increase the good bacteria that live in our guts.
Our gut is teeming with hundreds of different bacterial species, some of which are known to have very positive effects on our health such as aiding good digestion, producing vitamins, protecting the lining of the gut, promoting and improving our immune system among others.
These bacteria have gained so much notoriety recently that the the sale of probiotic supplements and drinks has rocketed (2).
However, it is still uncertain whether many of these bacterial species found in probiotic supplements survive the manufacturing process, then storage and then whether whatever is left make it to the gut alive and thriving.
Moreover, manufacturers concentrate on probiotics that are easy to grow in large numbers, not ones that are suitable for the environment in our gut – so even if they make it there in one piece, can they survive? Do they actually colonise? Or are they out-competed by other strains there (3).
Therefore, for now, the focus in clinical nutrition, is more on how we can alter our diet to support these helpful little fellas by giving them the food they want.
And this maybe where chocolate comes in!
British researchers at the University of Reading recruited 22 volunteers into a double blinded clinical trial and randomised them into two groups. One that consumed high cocoa flavanols and one that consumed low cocoa flavanols for four weeks (4).
They discovered that the group eating high cocoa flavanols had higher populations of the friendly bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, than the low cocoa flavanol group.
Obviously, eating chocolate every day is soon going to take its toll on our waistline, so what is the sensible take-home message from this?
The link with chocolate and gut bacteria appears to be the level of oligomeric flavanols, a compound that is also found in tea, grapes (and thus wine!) but chocolate provides the best source.
The problem is, converting this into a sensible solution. Chocolate varies in its flavanol content by manufacturer, and so not all chocolate is going to provide the same health benefits.
Eating around 50g high cocoa solid plain chocolate (75% or above) daily from good quality chocolate will provide similar levels of flavanols as found in the study – but avoid eating more than 200g per week.
If you are able to find non-alkalinised chocolate (also known as “dutching”), all the better, as the flavanol content will be higher (5).
Recommended brands (and I’m not on commission!) that use non-alkalised cocoa according to healthyeater.com:
- Lindt 85% (others are alkalised)
- Vivani 100% organic
There are many resources on the Web around chocolate. One of the most comprehensive is written by Happy Happy Vegan blogger, Lisa Williams.
Despite the blog having a vegan bias, the article does not look at chocolate from a vegan viewpoint other than the included recipes.
Disclaimer: I have not participated in this article, have any affiliations with it nor verified the nutritional written content or scientific references.
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.