The findings suggest that the compound increases connectivity and, subsequently, blood flow in a region of the brain critical to memory, the researchers said. The study published in Nature Neuroscience (Brickman et al, 2014 “Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults” Nature Neuroscience ) found that flavanols reverse mild memory loss in older adults
The study, partly financed by a chocolate company, used brain scans and memory tests and built on previous work showing that flavanols extracted from cocoa beans had improved neuronal connections in mice’s dentate gyrus, a part of the brain involved in memory formation.
“It more firmly establishes that this is the anatomical source of age-related memory loss,” said Scott A. Small, a professor of neurology and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the Taub Institute at Columbia University Medical Center. Small, the study’s senior author, said the study also offered yet more evidence that diet and healthy lifestyles that increase blood flow to the brain can slow or reverse age-related cognitive decline.
Chocolate is made from a herb called Cocoa which is rich in healthy polyphenols and flavonoids. Cocoa residue has been used for some time and has even been found in 2,600-year-old Mayan ceramic vessels in northern Belize. This pushes the start of mankind’s chocolate addiction back by 1,000 years. Prior to that discovery, the earliest signs of cocoa use dated back to 400 A.D.
However, it’s important to realize the differences between the various types of chocolate products available today.
For example, there’s a huge difference between the minimally processed dark chocolate and the milk chocolate found in most snack bars.
Likewise, raw, unsweetened cocoa powder, which is high in antioxidant flavonols, is vastly different from the common commercial cocoa drinks that are loaded with sugar and low in antioxidant content.
Dark chocolate has previously been linked to a number of health benefits , and according to a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry; October 2009, it may even help people suffering from high levels of anxiety to reduce their stress responses.
The researchers found that eating 40 grams of dark chocolate (75% cocoa solids) every day for two weeks affected the way stress hormones were metabolized. In the high anxiety group, eating this amount of dark chocolate significantly reduced stress hormone levels, and the participants in this group also reported feeling less anxious after eating chocolate.(worth noting that Nestle sponsored the research so there could be bias)
This all sounds well and good, however I’d be leery of consuming as much as 40 grams of chocolate each and every day.
Firstly, dark chocolate, although lower in sugar than milk chocolate, still contains sugar and can raise your insulin levels. High insulin levels are a major factor in the cause of disease in general.
In addition, a study published a few years ago found that just 6.7 grams of dark chocolate per day – about one square per day of a large bar -- represents the ideal amount for a protective effect against inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Any more than that started to cancel out the benefits.
Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for the development of cardiovascular diseases ranging from myocardial infarction to stroke.
Granted, it may be that more chocolate is required to achieve the anti-anxiety effect discovered above. However, they didn’t check to see if a lesser amount might have done the trick as well, so we just don’t know, do we?
Personally, I’d advise against eating half a bar of chocolate a day. To me it seems excessive, and may end up doing more harm than good in the long run.
The health benefits from chocolate are mainly due to the antioxidants present in the cocoa. The total antioxidant content of chocolate products are directly associated with the amount of raw cocoa it contains.
It’s no surprise then that cocoa powder ranks number one when it comes to health benefits, as it contains the highest level of flavanol antioxidants.
The best source of antioxidant rich cocoa is cocoa powder itself or a 75% or more cocoa dark chocolate. Dark unprocessed chocolate has been exonerated in several studies as actually having some positive impact on your health, such as improving your:
· Glucose metabolism (diabetic control)
· Blood pressure
· Cardiovascular system
Still, the take-home message of many of these studies is not that you should guzzle cocoa or over-indulge in chocolate, even if it’s dark, but rather, they show that dietary flavonols hold promise as a way to prevent heart disease and normalize glucose metabolism and may also improve memory.