You may have heard that chocolate is good for your gut bugs, but why? Dark chocolate (over 75% cocoa) is a rich source in polyphenols, and guess who loves polyphenols? You guessed it…our gut microbes!
What is a polyphenol?
A polyphenol is often one of those ‘buzz words’ that is thrown around in the nutrition world that thrives today. But what actually is a polyphenol? A polyphenol is a natural chemical found in some plant-based foods1. Polyphenols have antioxidant properties2 in the diet and are often praised for their disease-fighting/preventing properties 3. If something has antioxidant properties, it has the power to combat the negative effects of ‘free radicals’, which can cause stress-related cell damage to the body, including ageing5. Imagine them as mini superheroes in your body fighting all those bad guys off – they’re pretty awesome!
So where can we source these wonderful chemicals from? Some of the richest dietary sources include various herbs and spices (for example cloves and thyme), darkly coloured berries, seeds and nuts (flaxseeds and chestnuts), vegetables like artichokes and olives (and olive oil), drinks such as coffee and red wine, and our favourite… chocolate6!
Polyphenols and the gut
Our microbes need polyphenols to thrive and even make them more effective. Only 5-10% of polyphenols are absorbed in the small intestine, meaning the rest travel on down to the large intestine, where our gut microbes will break them down into more useable components that are beneficial to our health.7. It is this effect that means that polyphenols are seen as a prebiotic; indigestible food that is fermented by good gut bacteria8. This means chocolate, a prebiotic, supports the beneficial microbes and keeps the less helpful ones under control9. Polyphenols also provide fuel for our microbes to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). To name a few benefits, SCFA act as fuel for our gut cells and support our immune function.
What type and how much?
Before you go stockpiling chocolate, it is important to remember that not all chocolate is created in equal measure! The type and amount of chocolate are obviously important factors too. Cocoa is the ingredient in chocolate that contains the polyphenols12. There are many categories of polyphenols, but those found in cocoa are known as flavanols9. This basically means, the more cocoa content in chocolate, the more flavanols and so the more health benefits! This explains why dark chocolate has just over seven times the amount of polyphenols than milk chocolate!6. So make sure when you’re choosing your next chocolate indulgence to check for that all-important cocoa content (over 75% is what you should be aiming for) – condolences white chocolate lovers!
Unfortunately, there are no dietary recommended intakes for polyphenols but as with everything moderation and variety are important. From the research out there, around 45g (that’s the size of a classic chocolate bar) is more than enough to get that polyphenol kick that stimulates the growth of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli (the beneficial microbes) and decreases clostridia (the less helpful microbes)6 14. Or the same effect, make yourself a hot chocolate with some good quality cocoa.
So…chocolate: friend or foe? Well, with this newfound knowledge chocolate and your gut can definitely be good mates– what a relief!
About the author
Elouise Rice is from Northern Ireland and a second-year dietetic student studying in Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. She has a real passion for nutrition and loves everything about food, especially eating it! In the future, she hopes to work in the field of gut health. She finds it fascinating as it seems to be linked to almost anything and everything.
At the moment, she is the president of the Dietetic and Nutrition Society in QMU and although it can be stressful at times, she really enjoys organising events and socials for all of our members (we hope to get The Gut Stuff in at some point!)!
She is also the student representative for the East Scotland British Dietetic Association Branch. In her spare time, she loves to cook as well as bake – not surprising! She likes doing things not involving food too sometimes, including singing and dancing.
- https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2013.00011/full#B12 – study
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15190043/ and https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167527307017275