Chocolate will always be my first love. And thankfully, our 100+ trillion gut bacteria love it too. Truly, who can resist it? It’s the food of the gods after all.
What is Chocolate?
Theobroma cacao (theo = God, broma = food), the cacao tree, is a tropical evergreen tree whose seeds, the cacao beans, were first used by the Mayans in rituals and as a healing drink for various conditions including digestion and elimination. That’s right my friends, let’s snap off a square to our good gut health!
Many studies have showcased the health benefits of cacao: decreased blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and inflammation; improved insulin resistance, learning, memory, and mental health. These benefits are mostly linked to cacao’s fiber content (4 grams per ounce—you know I love that) and high antioxidant properties, which also provide us a whole lot of gut-loving benefits too.
Cacao contains two types of antioxidants: polyphenols and theobromine. Cacao’s specific polyphenols are the same ones that give fruits and veggies their red, blue, and purple colors, and are also responsible for cacao’s bitter taste. These polyphenols are poorly absorbed in the gut, which gives our gut microbes a (prebiotic) feast. Their fermentation of these polyphenols helps keep our bowels regular and immune system robust (70% is in the gut), produces happy neurotransmitters for mental health (80-90% made in the gut), reduces inflammation, and improves detoxification. Studies also showed that daily cacao consumption (70% or higher) increased beneficial gut bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, while decreasing gut microbes that are associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), colon cancer, and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis.
Theobromine is an antioxidant similar to caffeine, but less stimulating. Studies found that theobromine had anti-inflammatory and pro-immunity properties, while also positively affecting the diversity of beneficial gut bacteria. However, I do have one word of caution when it comes to theobromine: it’s been associated with having a relaxing effect on the esophageal sphincter. So, if you have reflux, eating chocolate could worsen it.
How to Choose Gut Health-Promoting Chocolate + Cocoa Powder
Since antioxidants are reduced during processing, here are some tips to get the most anti-inflammatory, gut-boosting bang for your chocolate.
Cacao or Cocoa Nibs. These are 100% cocoa. They’ve been fermented, dried, and roasted, which decreases antioxidant content; however, they haven’t been grinded, so more antioxidants are preserved compared to a chocolate bar or cocoa powder. These are delicious mixed with yogurt, overnight oats, and oatmeal, as well as toppings on smoothie bowls, fruit slices with nut butter, and butternut squash soup.
Single Origin Chocolate. Purchasing a chocolate bar that states where it’s from (i.e. 80% Zorzal Dominican Republic) usually means that the chocolate maker (typically a craft chocolate maker) values the flavor profile of those cocoa beans and will most likely do a lighter roast to preserve the desired flavor notes, which means more antioxidants for us and our gut microbes. Whereas non-craft chocolate companies tend to over-roast cocoa beans to mute flavors so the chocolate tastes the same (i.e. Hershey’s, Mars, etc.).
Higher Percentage Dark Chocolate. Studies highlighting the health benefit of cacao are using 70% or higher dark chocolate bars, because the higher the percentage, the more cocoa solids are present to spread all that antioxidant love (and more fiber—bonus!). And please don’t be fooled by semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, because they only need to contain 35% chocolate.
Natural Cocoa Powder. You may have noticed that some cocoa powder is labeled as natural/raw or Dutch-processed. Since Dutch processing is just another processing step that reduces antioxidants, opt for cocoa powders that are labeled natural.
I’d love to hear from you. Please comment below or send me an email stating your favorite dark chocolate bar, nibs, or cocoa powder for gut-boosting benefits. Also, if you’d like support with your digestion and gut health, I’d love to help. Please send me an email and let’s work together!
If you thought this blog post was helpful or know someone who would benefit from it, please like it and share it.
With love, Steph
Etxeberria, U., Fernandez-Quintela, A., Milagro, F. I., Aguirre, L, Martinez, J. A., & Portillo, M. P. (2013). Impact of polyphenols and polyphenol-rich dietary sources on gut microbiota composition. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 61(40), 9517-9533. doi: 10.1021/jf402506c.
Fox, M., Meyer-Gerspack, A. C., Wendebourg, M. J., Gruber, M., Heinrich, H., Sauter, M, … & Juengling, F. (2019). Effect of cocoa on the brain and gut in healthy subjects: a randomized controlled trial. British Journal of Nutrition, 121(6), 654-661. doi: 10.1017/S0007114518003689.
Katz, D. L, Doughty, K., & Ali, A. (2011). Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease. Antioxidants and Redox Signaling, 15(10), 2779-2811. doi: 10.1089/ars.2010.3697.
Latif, R. (2013). Chocolate/cocoa and human health: a review. Netherlands Journal of Medicine, 71(2), 63-68.
Montagna, M. T., Diella, G., Triggiano, F., Caponio, G. R., De Giglio, O., Caggiano, G., … & Portincasa, P. (2019). Chocolate, "Food of the Gods": history, science, and human health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(24), 4960-4981.doi: 10.3390/ijerph16244960.
Sorrenti, V., Ali, S., Mancin, L., Davinelli, S., Paoli, A., & Scapagnini, G. (2020). Cocoa polyphenols and gut microbiota interplay: bioavailability, prebiotic effect, and impact on human health. Nutrients, 12(7), 1908-1924. doi: 10.3390/nu12071908.
Wiese, M., Bashmakov, Y., Chalyk, N., Nielsen, D. S., Krych, L., Kot, W., … & Petyaev, I. (2019). Prebiotic effect of lycopene and dark chocolate on gut microbiome with systemic changes in liver metabolism, skeletal muscles and skin in moderately obese persons. BioMed Research International, doi: 10.1155/2019/4625279.