By Daniel Casillas, MWN
Derived from cocoa, chocolate is widely consumed all over the world. According to statistics, the global average amounts to an estimated 0.9 kilograms per capita per year. It is also estimated that the chocolate market is worth more than $103 billion and is expected to reach $171.6 billion by 2026.
Among its many properties, chocolate can make people feel good and be beneficial to our brains. A study recently published in Scientific Reports journal confirmed that. Investigators from the UK and the U.S. found that drinking cocoa can increase mental alertness thanks to the presence of flavanols, antioxidants that are abundant in cocoa beans.
They revealed that healthy adults performed better on difficult cognitive tasks if they consumed a cocoa beverage.
“The goal of the study was to investigate whether one single dose of cocoa flavanols could improve brain oxygenation levels and cognitive performance in young healthy adults,” Catarina Rendeiro, a biologist at the University of Birmingham, the UK, and lead author of the study, explained to Metro.
The research studied 18 healthy young adults and found that after drinking flavanol-rich cocoa, participants produced a greater and faster increase in blood oxygenation in the frontal cortex—a region of the brain that plays a key role in cognition and decision-making—that helped them better complete certain tasks.
“The fact that flavanols can be effective even in a healthy brain (where the physiology is working exactly as it should) is a remarkable finding and it means that we can potentially all benefit from diets rich in flavanols,” Rendeiro concluded.
Metro talked with Rendeiro to learn more.
What are flavanols?
Flavanols (a sub-group of flavonoids) are small compounds that can be found naturally in plants, but are particularly enriched in foods such as cocoa, green tea, berries, apples, grapes, pears, pulses, etc. They tend to give plants/fruits their strong bright colors and in the plants, they act as protective signaling compounds that defend the plant against extreme conditions such as droughts, changes in temperature, etc. Scientists thought that by eating the plants, some of the molecular defense mechanisms might translate to humans/animals and that was one of the earlier motivators for research in this area.
What led you to investigate the effect of cocoa flavanols on the human brain?
I have been interested in the health benefits of plant-derived flavonoids, particularly their effects on brain and cognitive functions for the last 10-12 years. We have known for many years that flavanols from cocoa can improve vascular function in humans by improving vessel/arterial function. These benefits are apparent even after one single dose. However, the extent to which some of these benefits could translate into the brain vasculature was less clear.
Given that we have more and more people suffering from cognitive impairments and neurodegenerative diseases later in life (and we are for the most part living longer), it is critical that we make the lifestyle choices (exercise, diet) that can maximize protection of the brain and help delay the onset of cognitive dysfunction when we age.
What does the future hold for the research?
Efficient oxygenation of the brain is key for cognition and impairments in this process, common in people of older age or at higher risk of cardiovascular diseases or dementia. So, in the future, it would be important to look at whether these beneficial effects we see in young people can be translated to risk populations, as these are likely to benefit the most.
Four other health benefits of cocoa
Improves blood flow
Flavonoids help process nitric oxide, so hot cocoa can improve blood flow, aid with lower blood pressure and boost heart health.
Prevents clot formation
Flavonoids in hot chocolate also help prevent blood platelets from mixing and forming clots.
Improves your mood
The positive effects on mood may be due to cocoa flavanols, the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin, the natural mood stabilizer.
Helps to control weight
The intake of cocoa, even in the form of chocolate, can help control your weight. There is a belief that it regulates energy use, reducing appetite and inflammation and increasing fat oxidation and the feeling of satiety.