Cocoa and coffee compounds show 'powerful' effects against obesity

Three compounds found in cocoa beans, particularly in the product's shells, show promise for reducing the inflammation and insulin resistance that may result from obesity, according to a new study. The research comes from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where researchers investigated three specific phenolic compounds on mice. The compounds' effects were described as 'powerful.'

Repairing damage

The study investigated three compounds called epicatechin, protocatechuic acid, and procyanidin B2. Though all three bioactive chemicals are found at high levels in cocoa bean shells, they're also present in cocoa beans, green tea, and coffee.

As part of the study, researchers tested these compounds in a water-based extract on immune and white fat cells from mice; the team also investigated the effects of each chemical individually. In both instances, damaged mitochondria in the white fat cells was repaired, resulting in less fat accumulation.

As well, the researchers noted that inflammation was blocked in these white fat cells and insulin sensitivity was restored, something necessary to avoid the harmful effects of insulin resistance often seen in cases of obesity.

Effects on immune system

The compounds were also found to be effective against another harmful effect of obesity: excessive growth of immune cells called macrophages. This growth is triggered when fat cells accumulate too much fat, resulting in what the researchers describe as a 'toxic cycle' of interaction between the immune and fat cells. Resulting toxins can lead to chronic inflammation, compounding obesity's harmful effects.

Chronic inflammation in obesity eventually results in insulin resistance, which can then snowball into type 2 diabetes. When the phenolic compounds were introduced into the mix, however, the white fat cells transformed into what is known as 'beige' fat, which burns fat more efficiently and contains more mitochondria. Insulin sensitivity was maintained and inflammation was controlled.

Using cocoa 'waste'

The researchers note that cocoa bean shells, which contain high levels of these compounds, are considered a waste product with approximately 700,000 tons thrown away every year. Extracting these compounds may put those shells to good use while also potentially helping address the harmful effects obesity has on the body.