Oh, the memories! A hot mug of cocoa on a cold winter day or a cool evening camping. If this is sounding familiar it might be more than the day, the activities, and the people you shared it with. Perhaps its something in the cocoa that’s helping you recall the good ol’ days? Research suggests that the phytochemicals (plant based chemicals, which often act as antioxidants) found in cocoa may help improve memory and mood.
The research is preliminary but cocoa may help brain blood flow, keep neurons healthy, and increase brain and gut hormones linked to positive feelings. Although you always need to be careful with the amount of Calories and fat, a little chocolate may be just what your brain needs. Cocoa Beans
Cocoa beans contain a lot of antioxidant phytochemicals especially flavonoids. The most concentrated flavonoids in chocolate are epicatechin and catechin (1). A cautionary note here, the processing of the cocoa bean to cocoa powder and chocolate can decrease the amount of phytochemicals, which means not all chocolate is created equal (2).
That sugary, milk chocolate candy bar is not going to have the same health benefits as a minimally processed, dark chocolate, almost pure cocoa bar. Cocoa also contains caffeine, with the highest amounts found in cocoa powder and unsweetened dark chocolate and the lowest amounts in milk chocolate (3). White chocolate is a different story altogether.
Cerebrovascular Effects of Cocoa
Thinking is hard work and your brain is constantly active – although barely when you are watching mindless TV! For your brain to work effectively it needs nutrients, which come from the bloodstream. This cerebral blood flow provides your brain with the oxygen and glucose it needs to function. The better the blood flow; the better your neurons can function.
In experiments where researchers gave people cocoa with high-levels of phytochemicals, they found the cocoa increased the size of the blood vessels in the brain (4). Interestingly, the effects were even more pronounced in elderly people as compared to younger people (5). Does this mean that cocoa could help counteract the decreased brain function that may occur with ageing? When researchers measured actual blood flow to the brain, they found an increase with 1 week of cocoa “treatment”(5). Makes sense larger blood vessels, increased blood flow.
Cocoa and Cognitive Performance
Increased blood flow seems like a good thing but is it actually leading to improvements in brain function (cognition)? A double-blind, placebo-controlled study looked at the brain using functional MRI (an imaging technique that can determine how active areas of your brain are) and found an increase in certain areas of the brain with a cocoa drink (6). Another study found that dark chocolate high in phytochemicals improved a person’s ability to notice visual contrasts and detect the direction of motion. They suggest this may be due to increased blood flow to both the brain and the eyes (7). Cocoa drinks also improved the ability of healthy adults to count backwards in threes from a given number (6).
What about memory? This is still controversial as one study using middle-aged volunteers found improved neural efficiency in spatial working memory (8); however, another study in a similar population did not find any benefits (9). It has also been suggested that cocoa can help people form, store and retrieve memories (10) although more research is needed.
Cocoa and Brain Protection
Many of the phytochemicals found in cocoa have been found to protect the neurons in the brain from damage and inflammation. Firstly, they can be beneficial by keeping the brain cells alive. Secondly, they help by increasing blood flow as discussed earlier (review). Unfortunately, for many people their “brain power” decreases as they age. It may be chocolate to the rescue, as a study in rats found that cocoa powder reduced the cognitive decline associated with ageing and improved short and long-term memory (11). The cocoa feed rats also had a longer lifespan but way more research is needed before it can be sold as the elixir of life!
Well-controlled human studies are needed before any firm conclusions can be made. In humans studies looking at the diets containing the types of phytochemicals found in chocolate and risk of cognitive decline one found a non-significant decrease (12) and two others found improvements (13,14). HOWEVER, these studies looked at the overall consumption of these phytochemicals from fruits, vegetables, teas, coffees etc. not just cocoa and they suggest it is the overall diet more than any individual ingredient that is improving brain function.
Chocolate and Mood
Culturally chocolate is associated with improving mood and making people feel good – a comfort food. Indeed, people do tend to crave chocolate when the are feeling stressed or upset. Part of this effect is likely due to the carbohyrates and their ability to stimulate the release of endorphins. Chocolate may also affect dopamine and serotonin, which can affect reward and mood (3). Finally, it just might be that chocolate tastes good and that makes us happy!
No Baloney’s advice? Dark chocolate may have some health benefits due to the phytochemicals it contains. There is promising evidence to suggest that it may improve mood and memory. We say go ahead and indulge in a small amount of chocolate if you wish. Stay away from the sugary, overly processed milk chocolates and aim for the dark cocoa. The 70% or more cocoa can taste a bit bitter at first but once you are habituated you’ll love it!
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- Clapperton J. Contribution of genotype to cocoa (Theobroma cacao L.). Tropic Agric (Trinidad) 1994; 71:303-8.
- Nehlig A. The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. Br J Clin Pharamcol 2013; 75;3: 716-27.
- Fisher ND et al. Flavanol-rich cocoa induces nitric-oxide-dependent vasodilation in healthy humans. J Hyperterns 2003; 21:2281-6.
- Fisher ND et al. Cocoa flavanols and brain perfusion. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol 2006; 47: Suppl. S: S210-4.
- Francis St et al. The effect of flavanol-rich cocoa on the fMRI response to a cognitive task in healthy young people. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol 2006; 47: Suppl. 2: S215-20.
- Field DR et al. Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in an acute improvement in visual and cognitive functions. Physiol Behv 2001: 103:225-60.
- Camfield DA et al. Steady state visually evoked potential (SSVEP) topography changes associated with cocoa flavanol consumption. Physiol Behav 2012; 10: 948-57.
- Crews WD Jr et al. A double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial of the effects of dark chocolate and cocoa on variables associated with neuropsychological functioning and cardiovascular healthy: clinical finding from a sample of healthy, cognitively intact older adults. Am J Clin Nutr 2008; 87: 872-80.
- Spencer JPE. Flavonoids: modulators of brain function? Br J Nutr 2008;99: ESuppl 1:ES60-77.
- Bisson JF et al. Effects of long-term administration of cocoa polyphenolic extract (Acticoa powder) on cognitive performances in aged rats. Br J Nutr 2008; 100: 94-101.
- Kalmijn, S et al. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, and cognitive function in very old men. Am J Epidemio 1997; 145:33-41.
- Letenneur L et al. Flavonoid intake and cognitive decline over a 10-year period. Am J Epidemiol 2007; 165:1364-71.
- Nurk E et al. Intake of flavonoid-rich wine, tea, and chocolate by elderly men and women is associated with better cognitive test performance. J Nutr 2009; 139:120-7.