Dark chocolate has been growing in popularity for the past decade as its range of flavors becomes more widely appreciated. But what may also be driving this interest is the fact that dark chocolate may be one of the world’s healthiest snacks for the body and mind.
This clinical study compared cognitive scores of individuals consuming either dark chocolate or white chocolate which, being free of cocoa, doesn’t include the flavonoids and other compounds associated with dark chocolate’s already impressive reputation.
When it comes to giving a boost to mental sharpness, dark chocolate’s epicatechin and catechin (also found in green tea) and theobromine and caffeine give it an edge over other similar, but less wholesome foods, like white chocolate. And the results of this test proved it.
Cognitive tests performed during and after the 30-day study period of either dark chocolate (containing 70 percent cacao) or white chocolate consumption found that those in the dark chocolate group scored higher in word tests, color tests, and nerve growth factor (NGF) levels (nerve growth factor promotes the growth and survival of nerve cells) than those in the white chocolate group.
Additionally, during follow up assessments that occurred three weeks after the study, when chocolate consumption had ended, individuals in the dark chocolate group still scored higher in cognitive tests. The researchers state that the increase in NGF during the active period may have increased neural plasticity, accounting for the improvement. And two compounds in dark chocolate, epicatechin and theobromine, have been shown in scientific studies to cross the blood-brain barrier, so they could be contributing to this boost as well.
Like tea, chocolate retains its healthiest components when it is the least processed. It’s best to find chocolate that is at least 70 percent cacao, as used in this study, for higher levels of beneficial compounds.
Sumiyoshi E, Matsuzaki K, Sugimoto N, Tanabe Y, Hara T, Katakura M, Miyamoto M, Mishima S, Shido O. Sub-Chronic Consumption of Dark Chocolate Enhances Cognitive Function and Releases Nerve Growth Factors: A Parallel-Group Randomized Trial. Nutrients. 2019 Nov 16;11(11):2800.
Previous research has shown that habitual chocolate intake is related to cognitive performance and that frequent chocolate consumption is significantly associated with improved memory. However, little is known about the effects of the subchronic consumption of dark chocolate (DC) on cognitive function and neurotrophins. Eighteen healthy young subjects (both sexes; 20-31 years old) were randomly divided into two groups: a DC intake group (n = 10) and a cacao-free white chocolate (WC) intake group (n = 8). The subjects then consumed chocolate daily for 30 days. Blood samples were taken to measure plasma levels of theobromine (a methylxanthine most often present in DC), nerve growth factor (NGF), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor, and to analyze hemodynamic parameters. Cognitive function was assessed using a modified Stroop color word test and digital cancellation test. Prefrontal cerebral blood flow was measured during the tests. DC consumption increased the NGF and theobromine levels in plasma, enhancing cognitive function performance in both tests. Interestingly, the DC-mediated enhancement of cognitive function was observed three weeks after the end of chocolate intake. WC consumption did not affect NGF and theobromine levels or cognitive performance. These results suggest that DC consumption has beneficial effects on human health by enhancing cognitive function.