- Three bioactive chemicals in cocoa shells have strong effects on fat and immune cells in mice, according to researchers at the University of Illinois. They could potentially reverse chronic inflammation and insulin resistance related to obesity.
- The researchers took the three chemicals — protocatechuic acid, epicatechin and procyanidin B2 — and made a water-based extract to test their impacts on fat cells.
- Cocoa shells are a waste byproduct that is generated when beans are roasted during chocolate production. Researcher Elvia Gonzalez de Mejia said in a university release that processing the shells to extract the nutrients would reduce the environmental toxins generated by cocoa shell waste.
Besides the potential benefit to human health, the study's findings raise the possibility that more cocoa shells could be diverted from the waste stream. The researchers estimated about 700,000 tons of shells are thrown out every year that can cause environmental contamination if they aren't disposed of properly. Other current uses for the shells include mulch, compost, paper packaging and pectin.
Processing cocoa shells for nutrients to be added to foods and beverages could reduce environmental toxicants the waste now generates and potentially give cocoa producers another source of revenue. The latter aspect could be significant since the top two West African cocoa-producing countries just negotiated a higher price from buyers in order to more adequately compensate farmers. The waste reduction factor could also help companies since consumers are increasingly looking for more sustainable products.
And if the researchers can prove that the obesity resistance mice experienced from the cocoa shells will have the same effect in humans, then consumers will likely be even more interested. According to the research paper, this is the first time these compounds in cocoa shells have shown a positive effect on fat cell differentiation and on disorders related to inflammation. However, it wasn't clear whether the researchers plan to do human studies as a follow up.
This isn't the first study to show health benefits for chocolate though. Previous studies by Barry Callebaut produced supportive but inconclusive results suggesting that consuming 200 milligrams of cocoa flavanols daily could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The Swiss company recently petitioned the Food and Drug Administration for a qualified health claim for cocoa powder, semi-sweet and dark chocolate products. The agency has the request under review.
The global demand for cocoa and chocolate continues to increase as premium and dark chocolate options, as well as sugar-free varieties, grow in popularity. The U.S. chocolate market, which is the world's largest, is projected to top $30 billion by 2021, according to a TechSci Research report. Still, threats from climate change, overproduction, child labor and forest destruction remain issues that will continue to impact production and prices.
For a market that is having its fair share of challenges, the potential health and environmental benefits highlighted in this study are worth closely monitoring going forward.