When studying the relationship between blood pressure and brain activity, psychologist Merrill Elias didn’t anticipate making any discoveries about chocolate. Yet over 40 years after his studies began in the 1970s, Elias and his team may have made a significant breakthrough that chocolate-lovers everywhere can celebrate: chocolate could enhance your cognitive abilities.
This revelation came late in the study, when the team broadened their research to include the dietary habits of their participants. They collected data through participant questionnaires for five years from 2001 to 2006, and just in 2016, a new study published the surprising pattern they found: people who eat chocolate at least once a week perform better cognitively than people who report rarely or never eating chocolate.
Even more surprisingly, the significant positive associations between chocolate and cognitive function held up even after adjusting for a number of variables, including age, education level, other dietary habits, and cardiovascular risk. Those who reported eating chocolate at least once a week had better visual-spatial memory and organization, working memory, and abstract reasoning among other cognitive skills. These skills translate into everyday life, making these chocolate-loving participants better able to remember phone numbers, daily tasks, and multitask effectively compared to their non-chocoholic counterparts.
In another analysis of the results, the team investigated whether chocolate led to improved cognitive functioning or if those with better cognitive functioning were simply drawn to chocolate. After narrowing in on 300 participants who had taken part in multiple waves of the study, they determined that the study pointed to chocolate driving cognitive function and not cognitive function driving chocolate consumption. The nature of a self-reported questionnaire doesn’t create enough certainty for the study to conclude a causality between chocolate and cognition, but there’s enough evidence to point to a significant correlation that warrants more research.
So how does our favorite chocolate bar improve our brain? No one can say for certain yet, but many studies have pinpointed beneficial components of chocolate. In particular, cocoa flavanols, natural nutrients found in cocoa (and by extension, chocolate), have previously been linked with reducing the effects of dementia and with benefitting psychological processes. The hypothesis is that flavanols can increase blood flow to the brain, which helps it function better.
In the short term, chocolate can increase concentration for the same reason coffee and tea can. Chocolate, like coffee and tea, contain methylxanthines, which are plant-based compounds that act as a stimulant. Chocolate also contains tryptophan, a chemical that causes the release of serotonin in the brain, which in turn plays a role in lifting one’s mood and creating a feeling of well-being. Happier, more awake brains tend to perform better in general.
There’s still plenty of room for discovery when it comes to chocolate’s effects on our brains. Although it’s suspected that the benefits stem from cocoa specifically, meaning darker chocolate should have more of an effect than lighter chocolate, Elias’s study did not touch on this factor. The study also didn’t measure the differences between those who eat chocolate once a week and those who eat chocolate more frequently—for example, once a day—or even the quality of the chocolate consumed.
Although no one can make definite claims yet on the benefits of chocolate for cognitive functions, there’s a good chance indulging in chocolate every now and then has more benefits than it does dangers! The next time you need a mental boost, try some high-quality ROYCE’ Chocolate and see what it does for you!