Brain Health,
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#130: Chocolate and Cognition with Dr. Georgina Crichton

May 27, 2016

Rejoice chocoholics!  Regular consumption of chocolate appears to be beneficial for cognition.

In episode 130, Jesse talks to Dr. Georgina Crichton, NHMRC (Australia) Research Fellow, University of South Australia, about her work looking at the effects of long-term consumption of certain foods — including chocolate — on cognition.

Chocolate and Your Brain

Most research on chocolate focuses on the acute effects of consumption.  A typical study involves feeding subjects dark chocolate and then almost immediately testing their cognition.  But Dr. Crichton was more interested in the long-term effects of regularly eating chocolate.

Using data on 1,000 people from Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study, a 25-year study, Dr. Crichton and her fellow researchers looked at the effect of regular chocolate consumption on cognition.

The results?

People who eat a small amount of chocolate at least once a week perform better cognitively.

Frequent chocolate consumption is associated with:

  • Better working memory, so you can remember your grocery list
  • Better abstract reasoning
  • Better visual-spatial memory
  • Better multitasking, like being able to talk and drive at the same time

These results held up when the researchers controlled for cardiovascular health, lifestyle, age, gender, education, and dietary factors.

Plus, it’s not that smarter people tend to like chocolate more.  Looking at the data, chocolate consumption affects cognitive ability, not the other way around.

Dark or Milk?

We’ve all heard about the health benefits of dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate has a higher cocoa content, meaning it has more flavanols than milk chocolate.  Cocoa flavanols are good for your brain, improving age-related cognitive dysfunction, and increasing blood flow to the brain.  Chocolate also contains methylxanthines, which enhance concentration.

But that doesn’t mean that milk chocolate isn’t beneficial.  Milk chocolate still has cocoa, and all the attendant beneficial compounds.  Plus, the study didn’t differentiate between dark or milk chocolate consumption — so have that milk chocolate Hershey’s kiss without guilt.

How Much Chocolate?

One of the limitations of this study was the lack of precise measurements of the amount of chocolate consumed.

One serving of chocolate is about 25 grams (or four small squares of chocolate).  According to Dr. Crichton, one or two servings a week may be enough to benefit your brain.

Further Reading

PS:  Get more good news about cognition when you join our weekly Brain Breakfast.

4 comments

  1. Ryno says:

    I wonder which chocolate brands would be ideal for maximizing flavanols (epicatechin) and enjoyability / flavor, while decreasing the sugar + cocoa butter + milk content? (I’m not opposed to 100% unsweetened chocolate.) I’ve read that chocolate (especially cocoa powder) tends to be high in heavy metals.

    I would be curious how something like the Pacari Raw 100% compares with something like a Pralus Le 100 bar, a Lindt 90%, a Taza Wicked Dark 95%, or any of darker varities. I’ve read that the higher % dark chocolates are usually paradoxically lower in polyphenols / flavanols / antioxidants, because more processing is applied and more cocoa butter is added to remove the bitterness and dilute the bar (where the antioxidants taste bitter.)

    Would I be better off with a daily 1/4oz (7 gram) piece of Baker’s Unsweetened 100% chocolate with my morning coffee, or would it be better to splurge on a half ounce or more a couple times a week (or maybe a full ounce or more of something sweeter with more sugar+fat?)

    I found a chocolate brand — Cocoavia, which claims to have the highest flavanol content… but their bars are surprisingly loaded with vegetable oil, grains, and several kinds of sugar (?) and their “sugar-free” cocoa extract contains maltodextrin…. which is basically a high-glycemic sugar.

    I’d love to know which bars give me the best balance of flavor + potent polyphenols to excess anti-nutrients / sugars / dilutions with cocoa butter.

    1. Michelle Silbernagel says:

      You raise a lot of interesting questions and points! The main one that popped out at me is your comment: “I’ve read that the higher % dark chocolates are usually paradoxically lower in polyphenols / flavanols / antioxidants, because more processing is applied and more cocoa butter is added to remove the bitterness and dilute the bar (where the antioxidants taste bitter.)”

      I’ve actually read the opposite, that darker the chocolate, the higher the flavonol content – because the amount of cacao butter is less in the darker chocolate varieties.

      However, the alkalization process does seem to vary by manufacturer – and alkalization negatively affects the flavonol content, as can be seen in the epicatechin content levels in this list of some popular chocolate bars.
      Interestingly, and somewhat counter-intuitively if considering only the cacao content, the Lindt 70% bar has more epicatechin content than the 85% Lindt bar — due to the specific alkalization process used for that particular bar.
      Also as you pointed out, the Cocoavia product does have a high epicatecin percentage, however, even the cocoa powder product has added maltodextrin which is derived from corn, rice, wheat or potato starch, something for those on special diets to note.
      The issue of heavy metal content, cadmium in particular, is noteworthy. ConsumerLab.com has tested a variety of chocolate products, assessing cadmium content. The seven bars they tested fell below the WHO limits. However, some of the cacao powders had excessive cadmium levels. Unfortunately, this report is “pay for purchase” piece of data.
      Take heart, though, as cadmium is not well absorbed by the body when consumed, and adequate calcium, iron, and zinc consumption may help reduce cadmium absorption further. It is wise to minimize exposure to cadmium and other heavy metals, because they can accumulate in the body and result in damage over time.

      General rules of thumb when purchasing chocolate:
      Avoid Dutch processed varieties, which use a high heat alkalization processes that lowers the phenolic profile.

      Cocoa powder is often better than many bars, when it comes to flavonols. Raw cacao powder is different than the cocoa powder often found on your supermarket shelves. Cocoa is the term used for cacao that has been roasted at high temperature (alkalized), which as I mentioned, changes the chemical nature of the bean and reduces its health benefits.
      So, my advice is to opt for raw cacao when possible, thereby avoiding powders or bars with added ingredients (sugar, vegetable oils)

      I am not familiar with Pacari Raw 100, Pralus Le 100 bar, a Lindt 90%, a Taza Wicked Dark 95%, but based on ingredients, they do seem to be good options.

      Here’s another bar made by Eating Evolved with absolutely no sugar added. Can’t vouch for its tastiness, as I’ve never tried it.
      Dave Asprey makes a cacao powder (he also has other chocolate products) that claims to be extremely pure.

      Some people recommend the best option (though not the tastiest) is unsweetened chocolate (100% cocoa), which is called chocolate liquor and actually made from roasted cocoa nibs. You can also get the nibs themselves.

      My personal favorite way to get my daily flavonol dose is with an organic, raw, cacao powder, bought online through Amazon. I put scoop it by the tablespoon into my morning coffee and sweeten with a little stevia. I alternate brands. My current favorites are Kiva Raw Organic Cacao Powder and TruVibe 100% Organic Raw Cacao Powder.

      Other considerations:

      Mold content – look for varieties grown at high altitude where there is less moisture.
      Heavy metal content – Check out this recent ranking of toxic chocolate.

      But note this study was contracted by As You Sow, based in California, which has more stringent regulations on toxic chemicals than the rest of the country or the FDA.

      Read More:
      The ultimate guide to raw cacao – powder, butter, nibs, nutritional benefits & uses
      The Difference Between Good Chocolate and Bad Chocolate
      Impact of fermentation, drying, roasting and Dutch processing on flavanol stereochemistry in cacao beans and cocoa ingredients. Survey of Commercially Available Chocolate- and Cocoa-Containing Products in the United States.

      Is there Cadmium in Your Cocao?

  2. ben says:

    Seems like Dr. Crichton will be back again, as there still more questions than answers! Not just in the type of chocolate (cacao vs dark, etc), but what effects, if any, does processing (dutch alkaline vs acidic) have on the flavonoids ( ex. epicatechin ) and alkaloids ( ex. theobromine).

    I use add Viva Labs’ Cacao powder to my coffee, but for a pudding dessert, I use Cocoavia:

    Mix 0.5 cup of Pacific Hemp Milk Unsweetened,
    2 tsp Maple Syrup,
    2 tbsp Chia,
    1 packet of CocoaVia,
    Then mix in 1/2 Banana mashed and refrigerate for 1 hour

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