Researchers from the University of Maine have linked habitual chocolate consumption to improved cognitive function.
Chocolate can make you smarter! In a conclusion that is hopeful for all chocolate lovers, researchers at the University of Maine have found that chocolate intake is associated with improved cognitive function. The study assessed a group of 968 dementia-free adults, tracking their daily diets over a number of months, including habitual chocolate intake.
The researchers were able to find a statistically significant relationship between eating chocolate and a wide range of brain functions, even with consideration given to cardiovascular, lifestyle, and dietary factors. All cognitive scores were significantly higher in those who consumed chocolate at least once per week, than in those who never/rarely consumed chocolate, as well as several physical health benefits.
“Habitual chocolate intake was related to cognitive performance, measured with an extensive battery of neuropsychological tests. More frequent chocolate consumption was significantly associated with better performance on the Global Composite score, Visual-Spatial Memory and Organization, Working Memory, Scanning and Tracking, Abstract Reasoning, and the Mini-Mental State Examination.”
Chocolate and cocoa products contain flavonoids, which are naturally occurring polyphenolic compounds present in plant-based foods. These flavonoids (and their subgroup flavanols) have been shown to increase information processing speed and working memory. Other compounds found in chocolate include methylxanthines, caffeine, and theobromine, which are known to improve alertness and cognitive processing.
The quantity of flavonoids depends on the kind of chocolate. The study says:
“The amount of cocoa in chocolate ranges from approximately 7–15% in milk chocolate, to 30–70% in dark chocolate. One hundred grams of dark chocolate contains approximately 100 mg of flavanols, while 100 g of unsweetened cocoa powder without meythlxanthines can contain up to 250 mg of flavanols.”
Darker chocolate, with its higher cocoa content, is healthier than milk and semi-sweet chocolates, with higher sugar content. Dark chocolate is more expensive, however, which is why the study discussion suggests that income may have something to do with this association: “It may be speculated that higher income individuals may purchase and consume more chocolate, and in particular dark chocolate, which has a higher flavanol content.”
The connection to cognitive performance is yet another feather in chocolate's cap, which has long been craved as the ultimate comfort food and was used historically to treat a wide range of maladies, from reducing fever, treating diarrhea, and increasing breast milk supply, to improving sexual performance, encouraging sleep, and cleaning teeth.