Revealed: The food that makes us smarter

For those of us who wish we could eat as much chocolate as we crave, a new study from the University of Birmingham seems as good as it gets.

“A team in the university’s school of sport, exercise and rehabilitation sciences found that people given a cocoa drink containing high levels of flavanols were able to complete certain cognitive tasks more efficiently than when drinking a non-flavanol enriched drink.”

The flavanol-rich drink also produced “a faster and greater increase in blood oxygenation levels”.

If drinking ‘enriched’ cocoa makes us smarter, we will willingly submit.

The study’s lead author, Dr Catarina Rendeiro, points out that flavanols are present in foods including grapes, apples, tea and berries. But they’re also in cocoa, which is extracted from the cacao bean, which is used to make chocolate.

Researchers found volunteers who had taken the flavanol-enriched drink performed cognitive tasks 11 per cent faster on average.

“Our results showed a clear benefit for the participants taking the flavanol-enriched drink – but only when the task became sufficiently complicated,” says Dr Rendeiro. “We can link this with our results on improved blood oxygenation – if you’re being challenged more, your brain needs improved blood oxygen levels to manage that challenge. It also further suggests that flavanols might be particularly beneficial during cognitively demanding tasks.”

Science regularly goes to and fro on the benefits of cacao-rich dark chocolate. Harvard Health’s Dr Robert Shmerling is typical of the expert debunker, reminding us that “not all chocolate is the same”.

“Dark chocolate and cocoa have high flavanol levels, while milk chocolate and white chocolate have much lower levels. In addition, many types of chocolate are high in sugar, fats and calories.”

But in 2017, participants in an Italian study showed “enhancements in working memory performance and improved visual information processing after having had cocoa flavanols”.

That study concluded that the cognitive performance of elderly individuals was improved by a daily intake of cocoa flavanols. “Factors such as attention, processing speed, working memory and verbal fluency were greatly affected.”

Lead authors Valentina Socci and Michele Ferrara from the University of L’Aquila said cocoa flavanols had the potential to “protect cognition in vulnerable populations over time by improving cognitive performance”.

In 2018, researchers at Loma Linda University in Southern California found that “consuming dark chocolate with at least 70 per cent cacao had positive effects on stress levels, inflammation, mood, memory and immunity”.

 “This is the first time that we have looked at the impact of large amounts of cacao in doses as small as a regular-sized chocolate bar in humans over short or long periods of time, and are encouraged by the findings,” said lead author Dr Lee S. Berk.

“These studies show us that the higher the concentration of cacao, the more positive the impact on cognition, memory, mood, immunity and other beneficial effects.”

The study confirmed that cocoa’s flavanols are “extremely potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, with known mechanisms beneficial for brain and cardiovascular health”.

The Loma Linda study used electroencephalogram (EEG) tests to measure brain waves.

“The results suggest that chocolate could slow oxidative stress, a condition in which the body has too many ‘free radicals,’ the waste products generated by chemical reactions in the body,” reported everydayhealth.com.

“Cacao has antioxidants that can repair the oxidative stress,” said Dr Berk.

A 2017 Danish study of 55,502 men and women aged 50 to 64 found that those who ate a 28 gram serving of chocolate (not necessarily dark) two to six times each week had a 20 per cent lower rate of atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat that can lead to conditions including blood clots, stroke, heart failure) compared with people who ate the same size serving less than once a month.

The problem with eating chocolate is not cocoa, but with the high calorie content and additives such as sugar and milk. And those might be the things chocolate-lovers crave. 

The trick is honing your palate to cacao-rich dark chocolate.

Bradley Biskup, a researcher and physician assistant at the University of Connecticut, is here to help.

“Your taste buds may have to adapt to the slightly less sweet taste of dark chocolate if you more commonly eat milk chocolate. It takes about 20 to 25 days to get fully used to it.”

We’re leaving the last word to the Italian researchers. “Dark chocolate is a rich source of flavanols. So, we always eat some dark chocolate. Every day.”

Do you like the taste of dark chocolate? Which treat do you wish you could indulge as much as you please?

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Written by Will Brodie

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