Virginia Tech researcher discovers key ingredient in cocoa has significant health benefits
April 14, 2014
In a first-of-its-kind discovery, a Virginia Tech scientist conducted a long-term research study that found a specific antioxidant in cocoa can dramatically increase the body’s ability to fight many modern-day ailments such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Andrew Neilson, an assistant professor of food science and technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has discovered that one particular type of antioxidant in cocoa prevented laboratory mice from gaining excess weight and lowered their blood sugar levels.
An article about the study was recently published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.
“Initially cocoa was shown to have cardiovascular benefits. Now, we are looking at other benefits of cocoa beyond the heart,” said Neilson, who is an affiliated researcher with the Fralin Life Science Institute.
But chocoholics be warned. Neilson isn’t suggesting gleefully stocking up on truffles, candy bars, and other chocolate confections. Instead, he said the research can lead to the development of healthy food additives made from cocoa compounds.
“We are trying to identify compounds and insert them into products that can be enhanced to elicit desired health effects,” he said.
Neilson showed that one particular type of compound in cocoa prevented laboratory mice from gaining excess weight and lowered their blood sugar levels when fed a diet high in fat. The flavanol oligomers appear to possess the greatest ability to prevent obesity and elevated blood sugar.
While research regarding the health benefits of cocoa is not new, three things set this study apart from its predecessors. The research performed by Neilson and his team was designed to be long-term in nature, incorporated live-animal models, and used a lower amount of cocoa compounds as compared to other studies.
“It’s important to use translatable doses to really see the effects of the compounds and how they function,” he said.
But not all flavanols, which are a type of antioxidant, are created equal. Cocoa has several different kinds of these compounds, so Neilson’s team decided to tease them apart and test each one individually for health benefits.
For the study, Neilson and his research team painstakingly created a large amount of flavanols in three different variations: monomers, oligomers, and polymers. The process involved tedious preparation because the study required so much of each type of the compound.
Oligomeric PCs appear to possess the greatest antiobesity and antidiabetic bioactivities of the flavanols in cocoa, particularly at the low doses employed for the present study.
Because of the long-term nature of the study and the low doses involved, Neilson said that the desired results could potentially be translatable to humans and “reasonably achieved with a couple of servings a day, ideally from low-fat, low-sugar sources of cocoa such as dark chocolate, cocoa nibs, and hot cocoa.”