We are in the midst of exam time and I have seen a few graphics around with the caption “chocolate increases brain function and memory”. To all those stress eating it seemed to be the perfect outcome. I don’t tend to take things at face value though and decided to do a bit of investigating which led to me reading several scientific papers on the topic of flavanols. Fortunately as a law student I am used to reading vast amounts of information written in jargon I can barely comprehend.
Does chocolate, as the popular caption says, “increase brain function and memory”? Well to answer that question we have to look at what is believed to cause this effect, flavanols. Flavanols are found in numerous food stuffs such as fruit and tea but it is especially prominent in pure cocoa. Flavorals have long been accepted as anti-oxidants and are brilliant at improving blood flow have been reported to reduce the risk of heart problems. A study, from the universities of Aberdeen, Manchester, Cambridge and East Anglia, found that people who eat up to 100g of chocolate a day are 11 per cent less likely to have a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular problem than people who eat none at all. Recently though the claim that flavanols affect the brain by increasing the flow of blood into the brain has been brought to the forefront. There a several studies within which the mind enhancing properties of flavanols have been investigated; I have looked at 2 notable ones and summarised the findings.
In one study 30 volunteers were given a drink containing 500mg of flavanols and asked to count backwards in groups of three from a random number between 800 and 999 generated by a computer. The findings from this showed that the participants were able to complete the calculations quicker and more accurately after they had been given the drink. The same result did not apply when the group was asked to count backwards in groups of seven, which the researchers described as a more complex task, requiring a slightly different part of the brain. The findings also show that the volunteers did not get as tired doing the calculations if they had been given the cocoa drink, despite being asked to do them over and over for an hour. Although not mentioned in the survey this could be because of caffeine contained in cocoa which one study approximated to be around 43mg per 100g of dark chocolate.
In another more in-depth study published by the American Society of Nutrition 90 elderly people were given specially made up drinks containing different levels of cocoa flavanols and tested before they started the 8 week course of drinks and then after. In this study there were three different levels: a drink containing 993 mg [high flavanol (HF)], 520 mg [intermediate flavanol (IF)], or 48 mg [low flavanol (LF)]. They were put through a Mini-mental state examination which reported no change. They were also put through a trial making test which assessed cognitive function and found a significant increase in the HF ground then graduating down to a minor change in the LF group. A similar result came up in the Verbal Fluency test.
Therefore it seems pretty clear that flavanols have an impact on our brains’ abilities but does that mean that chocolate will? Sure chocolate contains flavanols, but does it contain enough? There are so many types of chocolate and none of them have it on the label so this proved a bit of a difficult question to answer but I powered on through. “Flavanols and Methylxanthines in Commercially Available Dark Chocolate: A study of the Correlation with Nonfat Cocao Solids.” Is a great investigation into the flavanol content of supermarket available chocolates; unfortunately, as much as I looked I couldn’t find any chart to link up the code numbers with the names of the chocolates. I have; however, managed to draw some things out of it. White chocolate contains no flavanols, Cadbury’s milk chocolate contains 43 mg/100g, commercial dark chocolate brands contain from 100mg-800mg/100g. It found in general though that most supermarket dark chocolates sat in the 200mg range with some extreme variations.
It is clear then that dark chocolate is the best for you with regards to flavanol content but just to make it even more difficult to choose the one that is best ConsumerLab.com found that Ghirardelli Chocolate Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72% Cacao had more flavanols than Green & Black’s ORGANIC 85% Cacao Bar as unlike cocoa liquor and powdered cocoa, cocoa butter does not contain flavanols, and both count towards the cocoa percentage on the packet.
If you want the ultimate in flavanol content then go for Baker’s unsweetened, 100% cocoa baking chocolate at 1500mg per 100g and be Einstein (well it might not be quite that good); however, if you want something edible then try Ghirardelli Chocolate Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72% Cacao or green and blacks 85% . This should provide some form of result, not as significant as 1000mg a day as these bars will be around 250-300mg most probably although I won’t claim to know for certain on these particular bars.
On the milk chocolate front since there was still some result in the study with only consuming 48mg a day there may still be some minor upside to eating a bar a day of delicious Cadbury milk chocolate. If you throw in 4-5 cups of tea a day as well you will be up at 100mg and that is sure to make a bit of a difference.
In conclusion yes chocolate can be a brain food as long as it’s not white chocolate. It may not be the best brain food and it is by no means a superfood, unless you are eating Baker’s, but it is delicious and if we can pretend we are eating it to aid our study and not be entirely lying then it is a win for students.
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