Scientists have discovered certain compounds found in cocoa – the key ingredient of chocolates – can help the body release more insulin and respond to increased blood glucose better, an advance that may lead to new therapies to treat diabetes. When a person has diabetes, their body either does not produce enough insulin or does not process blood sugar properly. At the root of that is the failure of beta cells, whose job it is to produce insulin. The new study, published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, finds beta cells work better and remain stronger with an increased presence of epicatechin monomers, compounds found naturally in cocoa. However, rather than stocking up on the sugar-rich chocolate bars, researchers believe that they need to look for ways to take the compound out of cocoa, make more of it and then use it as a potential treatment for current diabetes patients. “You probably have to eat a lot of cocoa, and you probably don’t want it to have a lot of sugar in it. It’s the compound in cocoa you’re after,” said Jeffery Tessem, assistant professor at Brigham Young University in the US.
Researchers fed the cocoa compound to animals on a high- fat diet. They found that by adding it to the high-fat diet, the compound would decrease the level of obesity in the animals and would increase their ability to deal with increased blood glucose levels. The team then dove in and dissected what was happening on the cellular level – specifically, the beta cell level. They found that cocoa compounds named epicatechin monomers enhanced beta cells’ ability to secrete insulin. “What happens is it’s protecting the cells, it’s increasing their ability to deal with oxidative stress,” Tessem said. “The epicatechin monomers are making the mitochondria in the beta cells stronger, which produces more ATP (a cell’s energy source), which then results in more insulin being released,” he said.
While there has been a lot of research on similar compounds over the past decade, no one has been able to pinpoint which ones are the most beneficial or how exactly they bring about any benefit—until now. This research shows the epicatechin monomers, the smallest of the compounds, are the most effective. “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,” said Andrew Neilson, assistant professor at Virginia Tech in the US.