Cocoa: a sweet treat for the brain?

Posted on November 30, 2020

Italian researchers tested the effects of cocoa flavanols in 90 healthy 61- to 85-year-olds whose memories and thinking skills were in good shape for their ages. Participants drank a special brew of cocoa flavanols each day. One group’s brew contained a low amount of cocoa flavanols (48 milligrams [mg] a day), another’s contained a medium amount (520 mg), and the third’s contained a high amount (993 mg).

After eight weeks, people who consumed medium and high amounts of cocoa flavanols every day made significant improvements on tests that measured attention, executive function, and memory. The findings were published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

A similar study by these researchers published in 2012 showed that daily consumption of cocoa flavanols was associated with improved thinking skills in older adults who did have thinking problems, a condition called mild cognitive impairment. And both studies found that cocoa flavanols were associated with reduced blood pressure and improved insulin resistance.

If you give someone chocolate this Valentine’s Day, are you giving that person cocoa flavanols? Yes, but not nearly as much as the volunteers consumed in the Italian study.

The amount of cocoa used in chocolate varies by manufacturer. And flavanols are often destroyed in the production of chocolate. Dark chocolate has more cocoa and more flavanols than milk chocolate. The amount in dark chocolate can range from 100 mg in 100 grams of chocolate (about 3 ounces) to 2,000 mg.

It’s possible to get a megadose of cocoa flavanols from supplements and fortified powders that promise high doses. But consumer groups studying the amounts of cocoa flavanols in products have found that the actual amount in supplements and cocoa powders varies widely. The best way of getting cocoa flavanols is through cocoa powder that is as natural as possible and has not been processed through the Dutch method, which reduces the content of flavanols. Such cocoa powder will be bitter, though.

You may not need a megadose. “The benefits of cocoa flavanols on cardiovascular health are well established, and for the general population a daily intake of 200 mg of cocoa flavanols is starting to emerge as a potential target within the context of a balanced diet,” says Dr. Alonso-Alonso.

Be careful, though. Chocolate is high in calories. Adding it to your diet without taking out other foods can lead to weight gain, which may wipe out any health gain. Try to find dark chocolate that has the highest concentration of flavonols per ounce.

Source material from Havard Medical School

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