Chocolate is a junk food, full of empty calories to derail your diet and give you spots, right? No. Wrong. If studying for exams, or preparing a project for work makes you reach for the Dairy Milk, your body may be telling you something, research now suggests that chocolate really may make us smarter.
Chocolate has been thought to possess healing powers since ancient times. It has been used to treat all manner of health complaints, increase strength and boost sexual potency. But now it appears that eating chocolate regularly may actually improve our brain’s function.
Research not rumour
A forty-year study (1), looking at the lifestyles, health and mental function of nearly a thousand Americans has found that chocolate intake was associated with improved cognitive performance. This held true, even after adjusting for variables such as age, education and dietary habits.
Researcher and psychologist Merrill Elias said
“We found that people who eat chocolate at least once a week tend to perform better cognitively”
If that surprises you, you are not alone. The researchers were taken aback by the findings, having expected chocolate’s high sugar content to stunt cognitive capabilities. But in a barrage of tests, eating chocolate was associated with superior visual-spatial memory and organization, better working memory and improved abstract reasoning, as well as an overall better performance in mini-mental tests of cognition and memory.
This isn’t just scientific mumbo jumbo, or just of interest to geeks and students. It translates in to real differences in daily tasks such as remembering phone numbers, recalling the shopping list, or being able to do two things at once, like talking and driving at the same time.
What’s in it?
Cocoa products and chocolate are a rich source of flavonols. These are chemicals with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and have already been shown to help protect against cardiovascular disease (2).
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 (2).
The protective effects have been scientifically shown in animal tests of normal aging, dementia, and stroke and research is starting to confirm that a little cocoa may help keep our brains healthy as we get older by improving the blood supply to the brain (3).
It’s not just the flavanols that can have an impact. Chocolate, like coffee, tea and cola also contains methylxanthines(4), compounds including caffeine and theobromine that can give our concentration levels a boost (5).
Is all chocolate good chocolate?
The study didn’t look at the type of chocolate eaten, however darker varieties and especially those with more than 85% cocoa are richer in active ingredients, lower in sugar and more satisfying in small amounts. So, if you’re wavering between a pale, milky treat and an intense cocoa hit, head to the dark side.
This research is not a free pass to indulge your chocoholic tendencies but small amounts can definitely be enjoyed regularly without guilt as part of a healthy balanced diet; a little of what you fancy really does do you good.
Find out more:
- 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
- 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
- Chocolate and the brain: Neurobiological impact of cocoa flavanols on cognition and behavior (Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews Volume 37, Issue 10, Part 2, December 2013, Pages 2445–2453) Alexander N. Sokolova, , , Marina A. Pavlovab, Sibylle Klosterhalfena, Paul Encka
- Neurovascular coupling, cerebral white matter integrity, and response to cocoa in older people (Neurology September 3, 2013 vol. 81 no. 10 904-909) Farzaneh A. Sorond, MD, PhD, Shelley Hurwitz, PhD, David H. Salat, PhD, Douglas N. Greve, PhD and Naomi D.L. Fisher, MD
- Methylxanthines are the psycho-pharmacologically active constituents of chocolate (Psychopharmacology November 2004, Volume 176, Issue 3, pp 412-419) Hendrik J. Smit, Elizabeth A. Gaffan, Peter J. Rogers
- Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate (Nutrients. 2013 Oct; 5(10): 4159–4173) Rafael Franco,1,2,* Ainhoa Oñatibia-Astibia,1 and Eva Martínez-Pinilla1