Cognition and Cocoa

Research shows that cocoa – the main ingredient in chocolate – improves mental functioning

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that elderly test subjects who had taken cocoa flavanols showed improved cognitive functioning. After eight weeks of continued consumption of medium and high amounts of cocoa flavanols daily, test subjects showed improvements on tests measuring attention, executive function, and memory.

What Are Flavanols?

Flavanols are molecules found in plant products, like tea, cocoa, and wine. Flavanols have also been shown to improve blood flow to the brain, which could be one possible mechanism for the improvement of cognitive function.

So, is chocolate good for me?

Not quite. While cocoa has high levels of flavanols, chocolate is largely produced from fat and sugar. Chocolate – especially milk chocolate and those with low levels of cocoa – are high in calories and are likely to do more harm than good.

To harness the mental benefits of cocoa and their flavanols, it’s best to integrate dark chocolate into your diet. Dark chocolate often has higher levels of cocoa leading to a richer, fuller taste – and less fat and sugar. This combination will help you get that extra mental boost, without the extra fat. Dark chocolate can have anywhere from 100 mg to 2000 mg in 100 grams of chocolate.

Some supplements and powders also contain high doses of cocoa flavanols. While this is better than chocolate-based cocoa flavanols, research shows that we may not need high levels of flavanols to get mental benefits. Instead, we may only need 200 mg of cocoa flavanols a day, according to Dr. Alonso-Alonso of the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Cocoa and Intelligence in History

Dr. Franz Messerli of Columbia University discovered a peculiar correlation between intellectual achievement and cocoa. He noticed a positive correlation between annual per capita chocolate consumption and the number of Nobel Prizes won by a given country. While this correlation does not indicate causation, it is fun to consider.

The Bottom Line

The flavanols in cocoa make it a possible way to improve our brain function and cognition. However, high fat, sugar-dense chocolate may provide a slight flavanol boost but also add inches to your waistline. Stick to dark chocolate, or unsweetened cocoa drinks to get the brain-boosting flavanols without the calories.