Did you know that the “good” probiotic bacteria in your gut microbiome—the symbiotic cosmos of microbes living in your stomach and intestines—absolutely love cocoa? Not only do they eat it up and grow, they use it to boost your body’s probiotic potency and provide a heart-healthy anti-inflammatory effect.

Although scientists already knew that antioxidant compounds called flavonols in cocoa beans are what gives dark chocolate (semisweet, bittersweet and unsweetened) its many healthful properties—including the ability to fight inflammation and high blood pressure and regulate insulin and cholesterol—just how these flavonols in cocoa work had been a mystery. But this mystery was recently solved thanks to a team of food scientists from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

The team studied how flavonols in cocoa—which in and of themselves are too large to be absorbed by the gut—are transformed during human digestion. They did this by simulating the human gastrointestinal tract in test tubes. First, they “digested” unsweetened cocoa powder by mixing the cocoa with digestive enzymes, just as our stomachs would. What was left over after digestion—a small amount of nondigestible fiber (a prebiotic, or type of common food fiber that probiotics need to promote digestive health) and the flavonols—was then mixed with healthy human feces, which is the best source of normal human gut bacteria. In this way, the researchers could closely investigate how the nondigestible cocoa fiber—the prebiotic—and flavonols interact with “good” probiotic gut bacteria, which have names like those you find on yogurt containers, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

Over the next 24 hours, the fecal bacteria concoction became increasingly more acidic, which meant that the probiotic bacteria were fermenting the fiber. This fermentation made the large flavonol molecules break down into smaller molecules that could be absorbed, like other nutrients, through the gut into the bloodstream. From there, these antioxidant flavonols could do their job of reducing inflammation in cardiovascular tissue, allowing blood to flow through arteries more smoothly and, thereby, helping to prevent a cardiovascular event, such as stroke.

HOW YOU CAN GET THE MOST FROM COCOA

This study, basically, gives us insight about how cocoa “works” in providing health benefits. Now, if you want to take advantage of this science, you certainly can, but sorry…having your chocolate cake and eating it, too, won’t cut it. And most chocolate bars on the market do not contain enough cocoa solids to really benefit you and are full of sugar and additives besides. But you can claim the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory power of cocoa by enjoying dark chocolate—the purer and higher the cocoa content, the better. Here’s how…

  • Boost dark chocolate’s prebiotic potential by combining it with certain carbohydrate-rich prebiotic foods, such as bananas or wheat-based foods, like whole-grain breads. (Fibrous vegetables such as raw dandelion greens, asparagus and leeks are also great prebiotic sources, so if you want to get creative with dark chocolate-covered asparagus…lots of luck!)
  • Combine dark chocolate with fruits like pomegranates or acai berries to boost fermentation processes in your gut and pack a double punch of anti-inflammatory antioxidants from both the fruits and cocoa.

So go ahead and indulge in cocoa with a healthy, gut-health–boosting snack on the side to get the most from the natural probiotic cosmos already living inside you.