DEAR DOCTOR K:
Is chocolate really good for the brain?
It sounds too good to be true, but research has found that certain compounds in chocolate, called cocoa flavonols, may protect brain function.
In one recent study, researchers tested the effects of cocoa flavonols in 90 healthy 61- to 85-year-olds with good memory and thinking skills. Participants drank a special brew containing either a low (48 milligrams, or mg), medium (520 mg) or high (993 mg) amount of cocoa flavonols each day.
After eight weeks, the study participants took tests that measured attention, executive function and memory. People who had consumed medium and high amounts of cocoa flavonols every day made significant improvements on these tests, compared to people who consumed low amounts.
A previous study by these researchers was published in 2012. That study showed that daily consumption of cocoa flavonols was associated with improved thinking skills in older adults with a problem known as mild cognitive impairment.
Flavonols are a type of plant nutrient found in many foods and drinks. These include tea, red wine, blueberries, apples, pears, cherries and peanuts. They are particularly abundant in cacao beans, which are used to make cocoa powder and chocolate.
Flavonols in cocoa have been studied for many years. They have been shown to help lower blood pressure, improve insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes), improve blood flow to the brain and heart, prevent blood clots and fight cell damage.
How cocoa flavonols might boost thinking skills has not been directly studied in humans. In lab and animal studies, flavonols have been found to help brain cells “talk” to one another. They also protect brain cells from toxins and inflammation.
The amount of cocoa flavonols in chocolate varies widely from one chocolate to another. As a rule of thumb, dark chocolate has more flavonols than milk chocolate. Even so, the amount of flavonols in about three ounces of dark chocolate can range from 100 to 2,000 mg.
The forms of chocolate that we generally consume — chocolate candies and chocolate pastry — generally are high in both calories and cholesterol-raising saturated fats. So I’m surely not advising you to improve your heart health by eating a box of chocolates (or a big slice of chocolate cake) each day.
The chocolate confection industry is working on new forms of chocolate candies that are richer in flavonols and lower in calories and saturated fat. And there are plenty of low-calorie chocolate recipes on the Internet.
The best way to get cocoa flavonols is through dark cocoa powder mixed with a very little bit of added sugar and low-fat milk. Look for cocoa powder that is as natural as possible. (Avoid so-called “Dutch processed” cocoa powder, as Dutch processing reduces the amount of flavonols.)
For chocoholics like me, the research news on chocolate over the past decade has been good. Still, you’ve got to be careful about how you partake in its benefits.