It’s World Chocolate Day, and what better way to justify indulging in the sweet treat than by reading about its potential health benefits.
A number of studies have pointed to the possible health benefits of flavanols, naturally occurring compounds found in dark chocolate and cocoa that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. In 2017, Frontiers in Nutrition published a review of the ways they may benefit human brain function, which is also summarized by Harvard Health Publishing in one of their blogs:
Short-term consumption may be helpful. For example, a 2011 study of young adults found that two hours after consuming dark chocolate (with high flavanol content), memory and reaction time were better than among those consuming white chocolate (with low flavanol content). However, other similar studies showed no benefit.
Long-term consumption may be helpful. One 2014 study found that among adults ages 50 to 69, those taking a cocoa supplement with high flavanol content for three months had better performance on tests of memory than those assigned to take a low-flavanol cocoa supplement.
Several studies demonstrated evidence of improved brain blood flow, oxygen levels, or nerve function as measured by imaging tests or tests of electrical activity in the brain after the consumption of cocoa drinks. But because these changes were not routinely associated with improved performance on cognitive tasks, it’s hard to connect the results directly to better brain function.
The good news is, research continues to show signs of the positive effects of flavanols. In April, two small, pilot studies presented by Loma Linda University suggested that dark chocolate may boost brain function, immunity, and mood. And what was particularly intriguing was that even smaller portions, such as the size of a candy bar, seemed to show a positive impact. That said, the percentage of cacao in the chocolate played an important role–the higher, the better.
As we root for scientists to find definitive evidence that dark chocolate is a legitimate ingredient to a brain healthy life, take comfort in the knowledge that so far, it looks promising.
–Ann L. Whitman