You only live once, and denying yourself the occasional snack is no fun. That’s why we’re so quick to pick up on research that shows us that foods we love can actually be good for us.
Take chocolate, for example. The good stuff is high in cocoa, which contains compounds called flavonoids. There’s actually quite a bit of research showing these flavonoids that can help your brain by improving memory as well as information processing.
But don’t break out the Hershey bars just yet. Most chocolate bars don’t actually contain much cocoa, since it’s quite bitter. White chocolate lovers are almost completely out of luck, since most has no cocoa in it at all.
Those who use pure cocoa powder in baking or enjoy dark chocolate are more likely to feel the beneficial effects of cocoa flavonoids.
Milk chocolate lovers can also benefit, but should make sure to buy higher quality chocolates that contain at least 35 percent cocoa solids.
So what does the science say?
A 2017 paper published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition by Italian researchers examined previous studies done on chocolate and cognitive function. Their review showed that many research teams have studied both the long-term and short-term effects of cocoa consumption.
Most of the studies showed correlations between eating cocoa flavonoids and improved cognitive performance in areas like memory and visual information processing.
Some even showed that sleep-deprived women could improve their accuracy in performing tasks if they ate cocoa after a bad night of sleep.
Of course, the amount of cocoa and the difficulty of the cognitive tasks mattered a lot when it came to noticing a difference – a candy bar certainly isn’t going to make you smarter long-term, but a little jolt of dark chocolate could get you through a tough afternoon meeting after a bad night of sleep.
Most long-term studies of cocoa and brain activity have been performed in elderly populations. These too found that cocoa could improve attention, memory, and clear thinking, even in those with declining memories or other cognitive impairments.
The researchers say there’s a connection between the flavonoids and cardiovascular health that helps explain how the brain is affected:
“If you look at the underlying mechanism, the cocoa flavanols have beneficial effects for cardiovascular health and can increase cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. This structure is particularly affected by aging and therefore the potential source of age-related memory decline in humans.”
Of course, it’s not all good news. While regular cocoa consumption can improve your brain function, there are downsides. Chocolate can be high in calories, and additives like milk and sugar can lead to weight gain and all the health issues that come with it.
Like so many studies, these findings are an interesting step towards showing a real causal connection between eating cocoa and improved brain health, but more research still needs to be done.
In the meantime, it can’t hurt to have a bit of dark chocolate in moderation a few times a week. Of course, if that’s not a taste you enjoy, flavonoids can also be found in other foods such as apples, red grapes, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, beans, kale, and onions (though few studies have been performed connecting these foods to brain health).
And you’ve no doubt heard about the research connecting the flavonoids in red wine to brain health.
It will likely be the case that as the research piles up, companies will come up with ways to isolate the flavonoid compounds and make them into dietary supplements (some have already tried, but the FDA will not yet allow them to market it as a support medicine). But while users won’t have to worry about the calories in a supplement, we have to admit it doesn’t sound as nice as a glass of wine and some nice chocolate.
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Source: Science Daily