In recent years, athletes have widely used Cocoa for its health benefits, in particular concerning its widely reported positive cardiovascular effects. 

There had also been speculation that it could reduce the stomach cramps that athletes can experience during exercise. 

However, a study into the use of Cocoa as a supplement to reduce exercise-related digestive distress in athletes has concluded that the popular ingredient is ineffective at reducing symptoms.

The health benefits of Cocoa often stem from its high flavonoid content

With consumers becoming more health-conscious and opting for ingredients with perceived health benefits, Cocoa has become a popular point of focus as people seek out more ways to justify the inclusion of the ingredient in their diets, in large part because of its great taste.

One of the lesser-known reasons for its popularity with exercise fanatics is a belief held by some, that it might reduce digestive discomfort experienced as a result of intense exercise. Researchers at ACS’s Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry conducted a study to determine the efficacy of the ingredient as a supplement for this purpose.

The study, titled “Chronic Consumption of Cocoa Rich in Procyanidins Has a Marginal Impact on Gut Microbiota and on Serum and Faecal Metabolomes in Male Endurance Athletes”, looked at whether long-term consumption of Cocoa could alleviate the stomach issues reportedly caused by exercise. 

The health benefits of Cocoa often stem from its high flavonoid content, a compound shown to enhance antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, as well as prebiotic effects on beneficial gut microbes, demonstrated in animal studies. No studies have previously been conducted to look at such effects on human gut health however, so Mar Larrosa, François Fenaille and their colleagues wanted to create a realistic human study under highly controlled conditions to assess if Cocoa can ameliorate the problem.

The Study

The experiment involved subjecting 54 fit male athletes to a strict training routine over ten weeks. The participants were divided at random into two groups – the first group supplemented their regular diet with flavonoid-rich Cocoa, while the other received a placebo starch powder which they mixed into semi-skimmed milk and consumed with breakfast.

Participants completed a high endurance running test at the beginning of the study and then again at the end of the ten weeks. There were no reported changes to gastrointestinal symptoms in either participating group, indicating that the Cocoa had little to no impact on exercise-induced stomach distress. 

Furthermore, the observed effects on gut microbiome and plasma and faecal metabolites were only minor, leading the researchers to conclude that Cocoa is not an effective supplement for alleviating symptoms of gastrointestinal problems. It was noted, however, that the athletes’ high fruit and vegetable diet could possibly have masked a small effect of the Cocoa, but this was not significant enough to have any bearing on the final conclusion.

Studies like this highlight the importance of ensuring that any proclaimed health benefits of an ingredient are backed by scientific research and tangible evidence and not merely assumed. Although Cocoa fell short in this instance, research continues into this area, and we look forward to discovering more of its health benefits in future studies..

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