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Is Chocolate Really Good For Your Brain?

As Easter approaches, our thoughts move towards hot cross buns, school holidays and chocolate.

With Australians consuming around 6.2 kgs of chocolate a year, apart from wondering what our growing consumption is doing to our waistlines, it’s time to question some of the claims that abound as to whether chocolate really is a “superfood” that’s good for our heart, immune system, mood and memory.

Demand is rising, especially for premium, dark and organic chocolate products.

Cacao, cocoa and chocolate, what are we talking about?

Just to clarify cacao comes from the plant Theobroma Cacao and is produced from cold-pressed un-roasted cacao beans that remove the cacao butter in the process.

Cacao contains a number of beneficial phytochemicals including polyphenols (flavonols and proanthocyanidins) and methylxanthines (theobromine)

Dog lovers know that chocolate is highly toxic to their canine friends because of the theobromine it contains.

Cocoa comes from roasted cacao beans.

The thing to know, getting too excited about chocolate being a superfood, is that the research done is based on raw cacao, not the chocolate bar you bought in your local Deli.

Chocolate is made from cacao beans that have been fermented, dried and then roasted into cacao nibs that comprise cocoa butter and cocoa liquor. The commercial chocolate we love is created by adding sugar, vanilla (and milk for milk chocolate) in different quantities.

Demand is rising especially for the higher premium dark and organic chocolate products. The difference primarily is also in the amount of added sugar. A 70% dark chocolate, for example, is 30% sugar and 70% cocoa. A 50% dark chocolate is 50% sugar I think you get the drift.

The higher the percentage of cocoa, the lower the sugar content.

The Brainy Benefits of Cacao.

It’s neuroprotective.

Studies have shown consuming chocolate increases cerebral blood flow, promotes synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses between our neurons) and accumulates in the hippocampus the part of the brain associated with memory.

The Cocoa, Cognition and Ageing (CoCoA) study revealed positive benefits in a group with mild cognitive impairment who drank cocoa daily over an 8 week period.

Another study by Harvard Medical School found that drinking two cups of hot cocoa daily can increase cerebral blood flow for 2-3 hours. (Useful to know if you’re studying hard and want to help your brain function!)

On its own this is insufficient to indicate eating chocolate can future proof our brains against dementia especially as these studies used high dose cacao flavonols rather than the chocolate we readily identify with. Remember too the flavonoids contained in chocolate are also present in a number of other plant foods including tea, red grapes, apples, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, beans, kale and onions.

Though somehow, eating onions to boost our flavonoid intake doesn’t have quite the same appeal as enjoying some silky smooth chocolate.

It’s because chocolate contains some other interesting compounds.

Chocolate boosts mood.

The mood-enhancing benefits of chocolate are attributed to it being a source of anandamide, (Ananda being a Sanskrit word meaning happiness and pleasure) a neurotransmitter that binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain inducing a sense of happiness and well-being.

A review of 8 studies found chocolate does have a positive effect in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety while increasing a sense of calm.

I’ve also come across a number of women who crave chocolate especially at “that time of the month.” It’s thought this is because chocolate has a high level of magnesium and a deficiency leads to that craving. The reality is you’d have to eat an awful lot of chocolate to overcome any potential deficiency – sorry to be such a killjoy here and there are a number of other magnesium-rich foods (nuts, green leafy vegetables, bananas, figs and seafood not associated with cravings. You would be better off taking a magnesium supplement but hey if you enjoy a small amount of high quality 70% dark chocolate, then go for it because that lovely reward we get from eating chocolate triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin. No wonder eating chocolate makes us feel good.

Maybe there is a benefit in reaching for that comforting chocolate bar when we’re feeling down or stressed.

Chocolate is cardioprotective.

Our heart and brain health are strongly intertwined. A meta-analysis of studies in 2012 revealed 8 benefits of chocolate consumption

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced insulin resistance
  • Improved blood vessel function
  • Improved cholesterol ratios – lower LGL cholesterol and higher HDH
  • Lower triglyceride levels
  • Elevated mood (the magnesium in chocolate is believed to lower cortisol and improve mood, memory, focus and sleep)
  • Sharper memory (from the caffeine effect and)
  • Positive effect on the microbiome

Overall the resumption is chocolate can assist in protecting us from heart disease, risk of stroke and pre-diabetes.

Which has to be good news but of course the question on everyone’s lips is “How Much?”

How much chocolate should we be eating?

Spoiler alert – the amount is less than you’re hoping it will be.

The recommendation is to eat dark chocolate because it has a higher amount of cocoa and is lower in fat and sugar.

White chocolate is technically not a chocolate at all and doesn’t count.

I’ll say this quickly to minimise the disappointment.

You will benefit from consuming 40-50 grams/day or 1-2 small squares of dark chocolate 2-3 times a week.

Sorry.

But look at it this way. While the research isn’t saying that eating chocolate (especially the commercial brands) is the holy grail for better brain health and function there is enough evidence to suggest there are some benefits from enjoying a small quality of high-quality chocolate from time to time as a treat rather than a daily item.

If you’re not keen on the dark stuff, it’s often because it can taste bitter and less sweet than the better-known milk chocolate.

For our kids the message is clear – we need to teach our children that a small amount of dark chocolate from time to time is fine. Try weaning them slowly onto the higher percentage cocoa products as their taste buds adjust and avoid buying the cheap mass-produced milk chocolate products.

Current evidence suggests

  1. Short-term consumption may be helpful for memory and reaction time.
  2. Long-term consumption over 3 months may be helpful to memory.
  3. Improved cerebral blood flow occurs after consumption of cocoa drinks but this doesn’t necessarily equate to better brain function.

While chocolate may not be the brain superfood we’d like it to be there is certainly room to consider the benefit of enjoying the occasional pleasure of indulging in some high quality 70% dark chocolate.

Now that’s pure bliss.

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