The small study is the latest to suggest that chemicals in cocoa called flavanols can have beneficial effects on the brain. Flavanols are a type of chemical found naturally in cocoa beans, blueberries, green tea and red wine. Previous studies have suggested that mice on a flavanol-rich diet showed enhanced memory and greater blood flow to certain areas of the brain. Scott Small, a neurologist at Columbia University in New York City, wanted to see what affect a similar regime might have on the human brain.
To find out, his team instructed 19 volunteers aged 50 to 69 to drink 900 milligrams a day of powdered cocoa flavanols mixed with water or milk. This dosage was spread over two drinks each day. Another 18 people had to drink a similar beverage that contained just 10 milligrams of the compounds.
Before and after the three months, people in both groups underwent fMRI scans. Comparing the scans revealed that after the regime, the high-dose flavanol drinkers had about 20 per cent more blood flowing to a particular section of their hippocampi, called the dentate gyrus, than they did before. The high-dose drinkers also had about this much more blood flow to the dentate gyrus than the low-flavanol group. Intriguingly, this region has been linked to age-related memory decline in people.
It is normal for cognitive function to slightly deteriorate with age. Memory capacity begins to worsen, along with processing speed and the ability to form long-term memories. Finding a way to defer the onset of these issues becomes increasingly important as life expectancy gets longer and global populations age. The study argues that chocolate may have the answer as a superfood.
About Cocoa Flavanols
Flavanols are a distinct group of naturally occurring compounds that can be found in a variety of foods such as tea and red wine. Cocoa flavanols refers to the group of bioactives found naturally in fresh cocoa beans. Cocoa is an especially rich source of flavanols and the type and mixture of flavanols and procyanidins found in cocoa is unique.
Types of Chocolate
The cacao tree produces beans that are roasted and ground into a paste called cocoa liquor, or cocoa solids. The solids are then separated into cocoa butter and powder. All three ingredients are used in varying amounts to make different types of chocolate, but the cocoa solids are the only source of flavonoids. Dark chocolate and milk chocolate both have cocoa solids and cocoa butter, but milk chocolate has fewer solids, and more sugar and milk is added. White chocolate doesn't contain cocoa solids.
Flavonoids are a large group of plant-based antioxidants. The type of flavonoids found in chocolate are flavanols. You won't find flavonoid content on nutrition labels, but the label should indicate the percentage of cocoa solids. Since flavonoids are found only in the solids, you can use the percentage of solids as a general guide for choosing products with the most flavonoids. Unsweetened cocoa powder has 88 to 96 percent cocoa solids. Dark chocolate contains 45 to 80 percent cocoa solids, and milk chocolate has 5 to 7 percent.
Karen Foster is a holistic nutritionist, avid blogger, with five kids and an active lifestyle that keeps her in pursuit of the healthiest path towards a life of balance.