Cocoa could mitigate effects of high fat diet, but is it too soon to draw links with chocolate?

Cocoa powder linked to normalizing weight in mice, but more research is needed on humans and for chocolate, says study author. Photo credit: jamieanne

Research on mice has added to a growing body of evidence that cocoa improves metabolism, but it is too soon to suggest that chocolate fights obesity, according to the lead researcher.

The industry has used the potential metabolic benefits of cocoa as a health defence against attempts to label chocolate unhealthy.

For example in rallying against France’s plans for traffic light labels, a French artisan chocolate association recently used scientific research linking cocoa polyphenols to reduced formation of fat cells (Min 2013) as proof that chocolate was beneficial and not fattening.

But are we too hasty to suggest that because cocoa may be beneficial, so must chocolate?

Cocoa normalizes weight gain in mice

Research published in the journal Food & Function by Fidaleo et al. concluded that cocoa mitigated the effects of a high fat diet in mice.

It found that mice fed a high fat pet food supplemented with 10% cocoa powder for four weeks gained less weight than mice fed only high fat pet food.

“Surprisingly, when co-administered with a high fat diet, cocoa counteracted lipid storage in the  liver and normalized the weight gain of mice per calorie consumed, probably by improving lipid-metabolizing activity and oxidative stress defences,” lead researcher Marco Fidaleo of the University of Rome told ConfectioneryNews.

“Although our results were very promising, in this moment is not possible to transpose them on human without an in-depth research.”

More research needed

A previous study by Golomb et al. at the University of California claimed an association between frequent chocolate consumption and a lower body mass index.

Fidaleo said: “Golomb and coworkers shown that more frequent chocolate consumption can lower body mass index, thus it could seem that chocolate is the carrier for its positive effects but there is the need of more research. More importantly, even if it is known that fat has both good and bad proprieties, it is difficult to eradicate from the minds of the people that fats are bad.”

He pointed out that the cocoa used in his study contained a very small amount of fat. According to Barry Callebaut, a 40g chocolate tablet (dark, milk or white) has an average of 220kcal. Sugar accounts for about 30-40% of the calories, and fat about 40-50%.

Is chocolate the best carrier?

“In my opinion drinks with cocoa can be useful for health and surely more accepted by people as ‘healthy food’, but this is an opinion and there is the need to test it to be sure,” said Fidaleo.

Claudio Ferri, director of the School of Internal Medicine, University of L’Aquila, said during ConfectioneryNews debate on cocoa flavanol science at nutraceutical trade show Vitafoods in May that chocolate was the best carrier for cocoa flavanols as it was well liked and would have high compliance rates.

Ferri’s 2005 study found significantly lower insulin resistance in healthy study participants that consumed dark chocolate compared to white chocolate.

Sensationalist headlines

Andrew Neilson, assistant Professor at Virginia Tech that a class of compounds found in cocoa known as oligomers may prevent weight gain and reduce diabetes risk. He previously told this site that his findings had been sensationalized by the press, who were too hasty to draw a link with dark chocolate, giving the public the irresponsible idea that they can load up.

The only EU-approved health claim for chocolate or cocoa is Barry Callebaut’s heart health claim. It says that 200 mg of cocoa flavanols in cocoa beverages or dark chocolate contribute to normal blood flow.

Between 2009 and 2011, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) rejected health claims alleging that cocoa maintains normal body weight and enhances mood due to lack of evidence. It also rejected claims that cocoa flavanols protect lipids from oxidative damage and maintain normal blood pressure.

Food & Function
DOI:: 10.1039/C4FO00616J.
‘Cocoa protective effects against abnormal fat storage and oxidative stress induced by high-fat diet involve PPARα-signalling activation’
Authors: M. Fidaleo, A.Fracassi, A. Zuorro, R. Lavecchia, S. Moreno and C. Sartori

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