Gut Feelings about Immunity

Nature Medicine recently devoted an entire issue, July 2015, to  Inflammatory Disease, which of course caught our eye.  “A gut feeling about immunity”, by Roxanne Khamsi, explores the microbiome influence on the human immune system, and outlines various considerations of working with intestinal microbes to reduce harmful inflammation. Nice quotes from experts highlight the promise of probiotics/prebiotics, and point to the need for more evidence that the currently marketed products deliver on their claims. We’re working in this area, and have projects to help untangle the various factors that are involved, especially for those suffering with IBD and related gastro disorders.


chocolate1by Judy Palken, MNS, RD, LDN

Questions from a Reader:

I like to have chocolate every day. I do choose dark chocolate, which I’ve heard is better for me. Is this okay for my health, and will it interfere with attempts to improve my gut bacteria by diet?


Reader, good questions! You will be happy to hear, the news regarding chocolate is very good, overall, with a caveat which we will get to.

Chocolate comes from the cocoa bean, which grows off the Theobroma cacao tree in the rainforest. It is nutrient-rich, containing the minerals copper, iron, zinc, and magnesium. It also contains phytochemicals called polyphenols that have antioxidant activity and health benefits.

The health benefits of chocolate come primarily from the cocoa, which is just one component of chocolate. The more cocoa content, the darker and more healthful the chocolate.

The Cardiovascular Benefits –

Chocolate contains a type of polyphenol called flavonols that are potent antioxidants, and seem to help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Chocolate polyphenols may also lower LDL-cholesterol – another cardiovascular benefit.

The Gut Benefits –

Our beneficial gut bacteria actually help us to digest and absorb the polyphenols in chocolate. They ferment them into smaller molecules that can be more easily absorbed and then exert their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. In other words, we need to thank our bacteria for helping us to derive the benefit from chocolate!

Cocoa is a prebiotic in its own right – it contains fiber that bacteria feed on and metabolize into short chain fatty acids in the gut – a beneficial end product.

Cocoa-rich drinks have also been shown to increase the proportion of beneficial bacteria in the gut, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, compared to the bacteria we want less of.

So, what should we do with this good news about chocolate? We should enjoy this rich, complex, and wonderful food as people have since ancient times, for its health benefits as well as its unique and delectable flavor. But here is the caveat – besides the cocoa, chocolate also has a lot of fat and sugar. Hence the need for moderation – rich, chocolatey desserts and milk chocolate bars must be viewed simply as indulgent treats. They are not what is meant when you hear those words, chocolate is good for you!

However a couple of squares of dark chocolate (70% or higher cacao) is good for you! Cocoa powder is great!

So is cacao – and what is the difference, besides the spelling? Cacao powder is from cold-pressed, un-roasted cacao beans. Cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been chopped up into pieces. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that has been roasted. So cacoa powder is less processed, but cocoa powder is still very good for you, full of polyphenols and minerals, and is less expensive. Just be sure what you buy does not have added sugar – look for cocoa powder, not cocoa mix, with its added sugar and salt!

Anyway, back to your incredibly healthful dark chocolate squares, or cocoa powder – consider joining these with some other prebiotic foods to further feed the good bacteria in your gut.

Here are some delicious chocolate-with-other-prebiotic combinations:

  • Dark chocolate with blueberries, just the two of them together in your best china bowl, or in a smoothie, or on yogurt
  • Banana pieces coated in dark chocolate
  • Cocoa powder on your regular or steel cut oatmeal
  • Oatmeal cookies with dark chocolate pieces
  • Chia seed pudding with cocoa powder (see recipe)
  • For hot cocoa, best to make your own – follow the directions on your package of pure cocoa powder – use skim or low fat milk, cocoa powder, and a bit of sweetener, the advantage being that you can use much less sweetener than in commercially-prepared formulations, and be more generous with the cocoa! (you will always have more control over the ingredients, and can make foods more healthfully, when you do the preparation yourself). 

Recipes using Cocoa Powder

Chia Cocoa Pudding

3/4 cup unsweetened, organic plain soy milk (or another milk, such as almond or hemp)
1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract (no sugar added)
3 Tbsp chia seeds *
1 Tbsp pure cocoa powder


Add all ingredients to a jar or bowl in the order listed – milk first. Whisk or stir well with a fork until the cocoa powder is well-combined with the rest of the ingredients. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or overnight. Before eating, mix well again.

The thickness can be adjusted to your taste – for a thicker pudding, use more chia seeds; for a thinner consistency use less. Experiment to see how you like it.

This is great for dessert, breakfast, or a snack.

Cocoa Blueberry Smoothie
3/4 cup unsweetened, organic plain soy milk
1/2 cup frozen unsweetened blueberries
1 Tbsp pure cocoa powder
1 Tbsp oat bran

Directions: Mix all in a blender to desired consistency. Vary amounts of soy milk or blueberries to have your smoothie be more or less thick.

The oat bran gives this smoothie a nice, nutty consistency. Delicious!

You can find more at

Food Emulsifiers and the Microbiome

Experiment by Nora Martin
Experiment by Nora Martin

Beverly Hobbs

                                                                                                                                                                  July 17, 2015

Recently, my niece Nora and I did a science experiment about mold growing on bread that is exposed to various germs from hands that had touched various dirty surfaces. To our surprise, none of our samples grew any mold! See bread. Why was this? What is going on with food additives and what effect do they have on the microbiome and our health? As I browsed through Google, I found a recent article (and lots of press about the research described) linking emulsifiers to inflammatory bowel diseases. The studies were done in mice and the specific emulsifiers used were carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80. Both are commonly used to smooth the texture of foods such as ice cream, mayonnaise, and to keep foods that tend to separate homogenous. Yum!

Benoit Chassaing at Georgia State University fed mice the emulsifiers in large doses (note, the amounts are equal to how much a person would eat if the only thing they ate was ice cream).   Mice fed emulsifiers had less diversity in their microbiome and the microbes had moved closer to the cells lining the gut. These mice also showed more signs of intestinal inflammation. In certain mice that were bred to be more susceptible to gut diseases, the mice developed inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) at a rate more frequent and more severe than typical.

In heathy guts, there is a layer of mucus that lines the gut and prevents bacteria from coming into contact with the gut cells. They believe that the heavy mucus is broken down by emulsifiers, allowing the bacteria to get closer to the gut cells and cause inflammation.

In addition to inflammation, feeding healthy mice lots of the emulsifiers lead to increased weight gain and adiposity (more body fat) and decreased ability to regulate blood sugar levels. These kinds of symptoms are similar to what is observed in obesity-associated diseases.

The authors of the study suggest that the use of emulsifying agents in food may contribute to obesity and chronic inflammatory diseases in people. We have a program here at UMass Med that is looking at the relationship between diet and various gastrointestinal disorders. Our dieticians specialize in creating palatable recipes (without additives!) that facilitate gut healing while maintaining nutritional balance for patients with IBD, Crohn’s and Colitis. Watch here as we share with you more of their recipes over time.


Dietary emulsifiers impact the mouse gut microbiota promoting colitis and metabolic syndrome: Benoit Chassaing,Omry Koren,Julia K. Goodrich,Angela C. Poole,Shanthi Srinivasan,Ruth E. Ley& Andrew T. Gewirtz Nature 519, 92–96 (05 March 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14232;