Diabetics are often warned against the dangers of eating too much chocolate. But it turns out that one of the treat's major components might be just the thing to help keep the disease at bay. Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) have isolated a compound in cocoa that could help fight type-2 diabetes by pushing certain cells to become insulin powerhouses.

Inside the pancreas are intriguingly named regions known as the islets of Langerhans. It is in these regions where the body's beta cells reside. These specialized cells are responsible for secreting insulin – the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels – directly into the bloodstream when there is a spike in glucose. Beta cells also secrete a hormone called Amylin, which puts the brakes on the amount of glucose entering the bloodstream. In type-2 diabetics, however, the beta cells malfunction and are not able to do their jobs effectively.

What the BYU researchers discovered is that compounds found in cocoa called epicatechin monomers were able to increase the ability of beta cells to secrete insulin.

In their study, they placed mice on a high-fat diet. Then they gave the animals the cocoa compound. They found that the epicatechin monomers not only helped the rodents better deal with elevated blood glucose levels, but it also decreased the extent of their obesity. The effect, they concluded, has to do with the compound's action on the mitochondria inside beta cells. Mitochondria are specialized structures inside cells that convert oxygen and nutrients into ATP, a small molecule used to transfer energy throughout the body.

"What happens is it's protecting the cells, it's increasing their ability to deal with oxidative stress," said study author Jeffery Tessem, assistant professor of nutrition, dietetics and food science at BYU. "The epicatechin monomers are making the mitochondria in the beta cells stronger, which produces more ATP, which then results in more insulin being released."

Professor Jeffrey Tessem and graduate student Tommy Rowley, part of the study's team(Credit: Brigham Young University)

Of course, this isn't the first time we've seen the health benefits of chocolate components emerge in a study. Scientists have previously found out that dark chocolate can help feed the good bacteria in our gut to produce anti-inflammatory compounds; that the flavonols found in chocolate could ward off age-related memory decline; and that higher consumption of the treat has been linked to lower body fat levels. They've even previously shown that it plays a role in reducing diabetes as well as reducing cardiovascular disease and lowering the risk of stroke.

In this study, though, the researchers are quick to point out that the benefits from the cocoa compounds are likely not to be had simply by eating copious amounts of chocolate.

"You probably have to eat a lot of cocoa, and you probably don't want it to have a lot of sugar in it," said study author Jeffery Tessem, assistant professor of nutrition, dietetics and food science at BYU. "It's the compound in cocoa you're after."

Neilson adds that the findings could, however, lead to new supplements that might be quite useful.

"These results will help us get closer to using these compounds more effectively in foods or supplements to maintain normal blood glucose control and potentially even delay or prevent the onset of type-2 diabetes," he said.

The study has been published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry.

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