While there haven’t been all that many scientific studies done on the health benefits of cocoa, those that have been published have all come to the same conclusion: The phytochemicals (plant chemicals) in cocoa known as flavanols are good for your health and, in particular, your heart. A review of studies published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition suggests that cocoa flavanols could also be good for your brain. And, more specifically, flavanols protect the areas of your brain responsible for working memory, attention, mental processing speed and general cognition.
Researchers are not sure if the positive effects of chocolate on the brain stem from its positive effects on the heart, which help keep blood flowing normally, reduce clotting and improve blood pressure. All of these heart and circulatory benefits could increase blood flow to the brain. It is also possible that flavanols have a direct effect on brain signals protecting against cognitive decline.
Most studies have shown that this effect is particularly pronounced in elderly populations with mild cognitive impairment and early decline in memory. However, at least one study measured significant improvements in men and women ages 40 to 65. In all cases, improvements in brain function were noted when subjects received high doses (approximately 500 to 1,000 mg) of cocoa flavanols every day for periods of at least one month.
Dark chocolate and cocoa powder contain significantly higher amounts of flavanols than milk chocolate. White chocolate contains none at all. Studies that measured and compared the amount of flavanols in different types of chocolate found a range of approximately 94 to 650 mg in 3 ½-ounce samples of dark chocolate, compared to 41 mg in the same amount of milk chocolate. The darker the chocolate, or the higher the percentage of cacao in a dark chocolate bar, the higher the flavanol content. Laboratory testing has found, however, that the percentage of cocoa or cacao that appears on product labels is not always reliable.
If you decide to eat chocolate for health reasons, stick with recognized brands of dark chocolate. Also, it’s important to consider the fat and calorie content of chocolate in the context of the rest of your diet. If your diet is already high in fat and calories, the potential benefits of eating dark chocolate every day may not outweigh the risks for you.
Socci V, Tempesta D, Desideri G, De Gennaro L, Ferrara M. Enhancing human cognition with cocoa flavonoids. Frontiers in Nutrition. 16 May 2017.
Langer S, Marshall LJ, Day AJ, Morgan MRA Favanols and methylxanthines in commercially available dark chocolate: A study of the correlation with nonfat cocoa solids. 2011;59(15:8435-8441.
ConsumerLab.com Which dark chocolate bar has the most flavanols with the least calories?