Chocolate is probably the favorite sweet among all age groups. Very few people can resist chocolate and since you taste it in your childhood, it is almost automatically considered as the ideal sweet that follows you for your whole life. Chocolate has been used since ancient times to treat diseases, increase their strength, boost sexual desire and functions, and many others. Cocoa trees were cultivated by the Aztecs hundreds of years before the arrival of the Europeans (1).
Nowadays, many people blame chocolate that it is a sweet providing “empty” calories. However, many people admit that chocolate helps them concentrate and be more productive while studying or working. Each one of the two above-mentioned opinions has its points but if we want to be fair we need first to explore the ingredients of chocolate.
Ingredients of chocolate
I will mention the most common ingredients of a simple chocolate. Of course, there are different kinds of chocolate that include different types of additional ingredients such as nuts, fruits, cereals, sweeteners etc. But here are the main ingredients of a simple chocolate:
Cocoa, also known as cacao, is the dried and fully fermented fatty seed coming from the fruit of the cocoa tree. Cocoa liquor is the paste made from ground, roasted, shelled, and fermented cocoa beans, known as nibs. The cocoa liquor consists of nonfat cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Cocoa liquor can be recognized as “percent cacao” on food packaging. After reducing partly the cocoa butter from the liquor you get the cocoa powder (2).
The chocolate production process consists of fermentation, drying, roasting, grinding of cocoa beans, mixing of the ingredients (such as sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa mass, emulsifiers, milk components, and aroma), conching, and tempering (3).
Types of chocolate
The quantity of cocoa liquor in the final product determines how dark the chocolate is. When we talk about Milk chocolate, it is made by adding condensed or powdered milk to the chocolate mixture. The most typical chocolate consumed in the United States and worldwide is milk chocolate, and it usually contains 10%–12% cocoa liquor.
Bittersweet chocolate is often called as dark chocolate and must contain at least 1/3 by weight of cocoa liquor.
On the other hand, White chocolate contains only cocoa butter (not less than 20% of weight) combined with other ingredients like milk, sugar etc (2).
Chocolate’s nutritional content
The higher percentage of cocoa solids, the higher the caffeine content. Two ounces of 70% dark chocolate contains about 50-60 mg caffeine, while an 8-ounce cup of coffee contains 100-200 mg of caffeine (4).
Chocolate provides lipids (monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids).
Additionally, a 100-kcal portion of dark chocolate contains 1.7 g of fiber, however, semisweet chocolate and milk chocolate contain 1.2 g and 0.6 g per 100 kcal.
The cocoa bean provides several minerals necessary for vascular function, including calcium, copper, potassium, magnesium which reduce the risk of hypertension and atherosclerosis.
Moreover, the cocoa powder contains up to 50 mg of polyphenols per gram, which are mainly flavonols and provide antioxidant activity(2).
Chocolate and Brain
Chocolate contains a number of ingredients that have the potential to influence neurocognitive function, including carbohydrates, which have known behavioral effects (5). According to a 2003 study, there is growing evidence that the provision of glucose may influence both memory and mood, particularly when intense metabolic demands are placed on the brain (6). The other major psychoactive components of chocolate are flavanols and two methylxanthines: caffeine and theobromine (5).
A forty-year study (5), looking at the lifestyles, health and mental function of nearly a thousand Americans has found that chocolate intake was associated with improved cognitive performance. In a number of tests, eating chocolate was associated with superior visual-spatial memory and organization, better working memory and better performance in mini-mental tests of cognition and memory.
Once eaten and absorbed, flavonols have been shown to accumulate in the parts of the brain involved in learning and memory. They act to improve blood flow, protect against damage and support the production of proteins that protect and control the growth and development of nervous tissue as well as neuronal function and brain connectivity (8).
Caffeine which is contained in chocolate, helps you improve alertness and psychomotor function, particularly under conditions of fatigue (5). Theobromine, like caffeine, has psychoactive properties similar to those of caffeine (5). A caffeine-theobromine combination produced improved cognitive function and improved psychomotor function/attention and working memory in a dose-dependent manner.
The exact mechanisms by which components of chocolate may benefit cognitive processing remain unknown. There are some potential processes that might plausibly benefit neurocognition: The consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa products can affect neural activity, improve insulin sensitivity, improve endothelial function and blood flow, lower blood pressure and others(5).
Will eating chocolate finally make you smarter?
There is no doubt that chocolate is high in calories and can contribute to weight gain if eaten in excess. Additionally, the sugar contained is “empty calories”. However, there are many benefits on your cognitive abilities when eating chocolate. Thus, you should prefer eating chocolates with higher cocoa content to get more of the beneficial ingredients of the cocoa beans and to limit the sugar intake.
Nowadays, there are plenty of chocolate choices using natural sweeteners like stevia, that will provide a nice chocolate taste without the calories of sugar. If you want to get smarter, be smart when choosing your chocolate and consume it moderately to enjoy its taste and health benefits without adding sugar.
(1) Beckett S.T. (1994) Traditional chocolate making. In: Beckett S.T. (eds) Industrial Chocolate Manufacture and Use. Springer, Boston, MA
(2) Katz, D., Doughty, K. and Ali, A., 2011. Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, 15(10), pp.2779-2811.
(3) Barišić, V., Kopjar, M., Jozinović, A., Flanjak, I., Ačkar, Đ., Miličević, B., Šubarić, D., Jokić, S. and Babić, J., 2019. The Chemistry behind Chocolate Production. Molecules, 24(17), p.3163.
(4) The Nutrition Source. 2020. Dark Chocolate. [online] Available at: <https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/dark-chocolate/> [Accessed 17 March 2020].
(5)Scholey, A. and Owen, L., 2013. Effects of chocolate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review. Nutrition Reviews, 71(10), pp.665-681.
(6) Benton, D. and Nabb, S., 2003. Carbohydrate, Memory, and Mood. Nutrition Reviews, 61(suppl_5), pp.S61-S67.
(7)Chocolate intake is associated with better cognitive function: The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study (Appetite Volume 100, 1 May 2016, Pages 126–132) Georgina E. Crichton, Merrill F. Elias, Ala’a Alkerwi
(8)Habitual chocolate consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease among healthy men and women (Heart, June 2015) Chun Shing Kwok1,2, S Matthijs Boekholdt3, Marleen A H Lentjes4, Yoon K Loke5, Robert N Luben4, Jessica K Yeong6, Nicholas J Wareham7, Phyo K Myint1, Kay-Tee Khaw4