Many people derive more passion and pleasure from biting into a luscious piece of chocolate than from sharing a kiss with a lover. Chocolate's benefits do not end in the psychological reward centers, however. Researchers have long been aware of a link between dark chocolate, in particular, and cardiovascular health. But they didn't know quite why chocolate would improve the workings of a person's heart.
Now, researchers have finally worked out the recipe for dark chocolate's health benefits. As the Los Angeles Times reports, chocolate-loving microbes in our gut convert part of the cocoa in dark chocolate into anti-inflammatory compounds. Here's the LA Times on how the researchers found this out:
Using a series of modified test tubes to simulate humans' gurgling guts, researchers exposed several forms of cocoa powder to digestive juices and enzymes, and then to bacteria found in samples of human feces.
What they found was that after cocoa was "digested," long molecules called polyphenolic polymers remained within the gastrointestinal, or GI, tract.
That is until they encounter some of the many microbes that inhabit the human colon, particularly Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, researchers said.
The smaller molecules that result from this fermentation can travel through the gut wall and be used by the body, researchers said.
Some forms of cardiovascular disease are associated with inflammation, the researchers explained, and released into the body, these particles can help delay those problems. Other studies have found a connection between dark chocolate and lowered blood pressure.
As the researchers point out, however, it's the cocoa in dark chocolate—not the sugar and fat—that is doing all the positive work. "Our results don't translate to a Hershey bar," John Finley, the lead researcher, told NPR. "But cocoa powder goes well with many foods. I put it on my oatmeal every morning with berries."