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Cocoa shells may help prevent obesity-induced insulin resistance

Obesity alters cells in ways that can lead to long-term health problems. Examples of obesity-induced cell changes include inflammation and damage to metabolic functions, such as the ability to use insulin and make energy.
hot chocolate and other foods with cocoa

Compounds in cocoa may have the potential to prevent obesity-related conditions, according to new research.

Now, new research from the University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign and other institutions has shown that extract of cocoa bean shells contains three compounds that could potentially reduce or prevent some of these cell changes.

Cocoa, green tea, and coffee also contain the same three compounds, which are: protocatechuic acid, epicatechin, and procyanidin B2.

A recent Molecular Nutrition & Food Research paper gives an account of the study and its findings.

The three compounds are plant phenolics, a group that occurs throughout the plant kingdom. In recent years, scientists have become increasingly interested in the health properties of plant phenolics.

In obesity, white adipocytes, a type of fat cell, acquire too much fat and spur the growth of immune cells called macrophages.

Interaction between the fat-laden adipocytes and the macrophages, in turn, promotes a state of persistent, or chronic, inflammation that accompanies obesity.

Eventually, the chronic inflammation reduces the ability of the cells to take in and convert glucose into energy. This impairment causes insulin resistance, which is a precursor to type 2 diabetes.

Phenols treat obesity-induced cell changes

A combination of too much fat, rising levels of glucose, and inflammation also damages mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses in cells that make energy by burning fat and glucose.

However, after studying these various obesity-related effects in fat and immune cells from mice, the researchers found that they could treat them with cocoa shell extract.

“We observed,” says lead study author Miguel Rebollo-Hernanz, Ph.D., “that the extract was able to maintain the mitochondria and their function, modulating the inflammatory process and maintaining the adipocytes’ sensitivity to insulin.”

Rebollo-Hernanz is a visiting scholar in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois.

According to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO), there were more than 650 million people with obesity worldwide in 2016.

WHO estimates also suggest that around 2.8 million deaths occur each year because of being overweight or having obesity. In addition, the proportion of people with obesity has nearly tripled in the 40 years leading up to 2016.

People with obesity have a higher risk of developing long-term diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, and conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels.

Previous studies have shown that as obesity progresses, fat accumulates, together with an increase in adipose tissue macrophages that promote “low‐grade, chronic inflammation and dysregulated metabolism.”