Natural compounds in cocoa could delay onset of type 2 diabetes

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30 Aug 2017 --- There is a possibility that eating some kinds of chocolate could help to fight and treat diabetes, as certain compounds found in cocoa called epicatechin monomers can actually help the body release more insulin and respond to increased blood glucose better. This is according to research at Brigham Young University (BYU) in the US that was funded, in part, thanks to grants from the Diabetes Action Research and Education Foundation and the American Diabetes Association.

However, this isn’t quite the good news for chocolate lovers that it might seem at first. “You probably have to eat a lot of cocoa, and you probably don't want it to have a lot of sugar in it,” says study author Jeffery Tessem, assistant professor of nutrition, dietetics and food science at BYU. “It's the compound in cocoa you're after.”

The body of a person with diabetes either doesn't produce enough insulin or doesn't process blood sugar properly. The main cause 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, has found that beta cells work better and remain stronger with an increased presence of epicatechin monomers, compounds found naturally in cocoa.

Dealing better with glucose
To discover this, collaborators at Virginia Tech first 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 BYU team, made up of graduate and undergraduate students in Tessem's lab and the labs of Ben Bikman and Jason Hansen (BYU professors of physiology and developmental biology), then looked at what was happening on the cellular level – specifically, the beta cell level. That's when they learned 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 explains. “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.”

The BYU press release notes that there has been a lot of research on similar compounds over the past decade, but no one has been able to point out 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,” says study co-author Andrew Neilson, Assistant Professor of Food Science at Virginia Tech in the US.

Rather than stocking up on the sugar-rich chocolate bars at the checkout line, the BYU press release points out that researchers believe the starting point is 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.

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