BYU researchers identify cocoa compound beneficial to diabetics

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Thomas Rowley, a recent BYU graduate, analyzes cells for a study on cocoa’s benefits in the lab of Jeffery Tessem. The study demonstrates that compounds in cocoa could cause beta cells to produce more insulin in the body. (BYU Photo)

BYU researchers have identified compounds in cocoa that can increase the body’s insulin production. The results of the study have the greatest impact on those living with Type 2 diabetes, as their bodies cannot manage glucose levels regularly.

The breakthrough research, led by BYU assistant professor Jeffery Tessem, pinpoints epicatechin monomers in cocoa as the specific compounds that can aid the body’s beta cells in insulin production — information that’s previously been unidentifiable, despite an influx of diabetes research over the last 10 years.

“There was always some data out there that cocoa — not chocolate, but cocoa — could have some of these benefits,” Tessem said. “We were basically asking what is it in cocoa that has these benefits.”

Tessem became involved in the study through his collaborator Andrew Neilson, an associate professor at Virginia Tech and BYU alumnus who previously researched cocoa’s benefits.

The beneficial compounds in cocoa had not been identified, despite previous data demonstrating cocoa’s benefits to those with diabetes. With this unanswered question in mind, Neilson separated the cocoa compounds by size and tested them.

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Rowley uses deep freezing containers in the lab to preserve cells for further research. (BYU Photo)

Neilson experimented on three groups of mice over a six-week period, putting one group on a normal diet, another group on a high-fat diet, and the last group on a high-fat diet with added cocoa. He saw improvements in the body weight and glucose levels of the mice who were fed cocoa. Neilson approached Tessem about what could be happening on a cellular level after making this discovery. 

“As we sat down, we hashed out this idea: ‘What do you think could be happening at the beta cells?’ None of his experiments had really addressed that,” Tessem said. “So we took those same fractions that he had made, and we looked at their ability on the beta cell.”

The beta cell is responsible for releasing insulin in order to maintain a normal blood-glucose level. The tissues that would normally respond to insulin by removing glucose do not function properly when a person has Type 2 diabetes. For years, researchers have looked to these tissues — including the liver, skeletal muscle and fat tissue — as the source of the problem. However, recent data suggests that this lack of functionality actually starts in the beta cell.

Tessem brought on BYU associate professor Jason Hansen, who has a background in cellular oxidative stress, to the research. Diabetes is believed to have roots in oxidative stress, the damage caused by an imbalance of a cell’s environment, due to the increased amounts of sugar in the blood, Hansen said.

“This particular paper focuses on beta cells, but any cell can be susceptible to the effects of oxidative stress,” Hansen said. “Because the beta cells are so wimpy, it doesn’t take a lot.”

Oxidative stress could harm the beta cells as early as the pre-diabetic stage, negatively impacting their function and thereby causing stress to other tissues, according to Tessem. The beta cells die off as a result, progressing diabetes within the body.

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Jeffery Tessem and Tommy Rowley work side-by-side to understand more about cocoa’s positive influence on blood-glucose levels. Tessem leads the research with the assistance of fellow BYU professors and students. (BYU Photo)

The results from this study have the potential for even more research to be done and eventual therapeutics or supplements to be created. Monomeric epicatechins could be replicated for pharmacological purposes, according to Tessem. But that process could take years. It is more likely that people add cocoa to their diets to get these benefits until a product possibly hits the market down the line.  

Tommy Rowley, a recent BYU graduate, worked with Tessem as a graduate student and is the first author on the published study.

“It’s fun enough doing research at BYU just because it’s well known for doing high-quality research on interesting topics,” Rowley said. “But to have the research actually help people with real problems would be a really satisfying feeling.”

Tessem’s next step in the research process is a trip to Virginia Tech, where he will assist in the next set of studies.

“Right now we’re trying to address the question, ‘Can we make more beta cells with these? Do they protect against beta cell death?'” Tessem said. “So we have some interesting data with that.”