How does chocolate affect the brain?
Researchers Georgina Crichton, Merrill Elias, and Ala’a Alkerwi published a study recently showing that eating chocolate at least once a week was associated with better cognitive function. This study was part of the Main-Syracuse Longitudinal study that has been underway since 1976 looking at aging, blood pressure and cognitive performance. The discovery that chocolate is associated with improved cognitive function came as a surprise.
The study included just under 1000 participants according to a Washington Post article in March that also stated the following:
In scientific terms, eating chocolate was significantly associated with superior “visual-spatial memory and [organization], working memory, scanning and tracking, abstract reasoning, and [improved performance on] the mini-mental state examination.”
Chocolate may have other benefits for health
Interestingly (although maybe coincidentally) the person with the longest lifespan on record (Jeane Calment) reported that she ate approximately 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of chocolate every week.
According to the Underground Health Reporter chocolate has many components associated with an array of health benefits such as:
- anti-asthmatic compounds theobromine and theyophilline
- flavonol antioxidants that increase blood flow to the brain
- high levels of sulfur and magnesium increase focus and alertness
- cacao prolongs the activity of the happiness inducing compound anandamide
- theobromine kills the bacteria that cause cavities
- zinc – improves health of the immune system, liver, pancreas and skin
Cacao and the heart
Roberto Corti , MD , et al. published a review of cocoa and cardiovascular health in 2009 that included a brief history of cacao. The scientific name of the cocoa tree, is Theobroma Cacao which mean god (theo) drink (broma) and the history of its use dates back to at least 1600 BC.
In the review article the authors discuss early evidence of cacao’s protective effect on the heart found among the Kuna Indians living on islands off the coast of Panama. This population did not experience increases in blood pressure with aging as occurs in other countries. The effect was attributed to the plentiful daily consumption of cocoa and the flavonoids that it contains. See the link above for additional evidence related to the health benefits of cacao.
The authors do note however that the beneficial effects are not necessarily found in chocolate due to the large amounts of sugar and milk used to produce it. In order to obtain the strongest health benefits one must look for dark chocolate or pure cacao.
Chocolate vs Cocoa vs Cacao
It appears that the words chocolate, cocoa and cacao are used in different ways and so the individual needs to investigate the ingredients and preparation process to determine the level of healthy compounds retained in each product.
According to One Green Planet, cacao is the purest form of the cacao beans, essentially raw beans that have been ground up and not heated. They are the most nutrient rich form. Cacao nibs are simply cacao beans that have been cut up and packaged.
Cocoa powder is the next best form of cacao beans. It undergoes a higher temperature heating process but still retains many of the health benefits.
Chocolate includes the most added ingredients such as sugar, milk, and other additives. The added ingredients can greatly compromise some of the beneficial aspects of the cacao bean. However, it appears that even in this form some of the health benefits can be retained especially in darker varieties of chocolate.
Although Cocoa is likely safe for most people individuals on medications should proceed carefully and obtain advice from their doctors or dietitians regarding allowable doses. In particular, patients with diabetes could experience unacceptable increase in blood sugar, and patients on blood thinners may have an increased risk of bleeding.
How much is enough
Cocoa contains caffeine and eating too much can result in nervousness, sleeplessness, migraine headaches, etc Chocolate can also cause allergic skin reactions in some people. This means that each individual may react differently. Cocoa contains caffeine and thus all of the precautions related to caffeine also apply to chocolate. If you are not sure how you may react to chocolate, cacao, or cocoa you may want to consult with a registered dietitian or doctor.
Information on dosing is provided in this link. However, because of individual differences each individual must carefully investigate what will work best for their own body. The serving sizes provided by the specific product manufacturer are a good starting point if you are not allergic.
How does chocolate affect your world
Let us know about the positive or negative experiences you have had with different chocolate types. Seems this may be food worth exploring and enjoying in your diet.