Cocoa protects memory

Chocolate gets a lot of good press these days, largely because confectionary companies are willing to support research into their product. In fact, in the study we mention today Mars Inc. did supply the cocoa used but that’s not the important thing: it is the cocoa that matters. “Chocolate” has lots of potential additives to the cocoa itself. Sugar and fat are the main problem additives, but when we talk about the health benefits of chocolate we are really talking about the cocoa and the antioxidant flavanols that it contains. In this study researchers wanted to whether cocoa flavanols might improve memory via a process called neurovascular coupling.

Neurovascular coupling refers to the fact that as an area of the brain is called into action it requires more energy and it needs an increase in blood flow to achieve it. So healthy neurovascular coupling results in a rapid blood flow response to brain activity. These Harvard researchers wanted to see whether cocoa flavanols might enhance that process.

To test this they used ultrasound to measure the neurovascular coupling of a group of subjects as they completed some mental tasks. Around 30 per cent of people showed as having impaired neurovascular coupling.

The subjects were then asked to drink two cups of hot cocoa daily for 30 days. Half of the subjects drank a high-flavanol cocoa while the rest drank a flavanol-poor cocoa.

Those people with impaired neurovascular coupling experienced improvements in brain function regardless of which drink they consumed. At the start of the study it took these people an average 167 seconds to complete the memory test, but by the end of the study they did it in 116 seconds.

The people with normal neurovascular coupling did not receive any benefit from their cocoa. It appears then that cocoa consumption can improve brain function where neurovascular coupling is restricted.

Keen-eyed observers will be shouting at the screen, “But yesterday this column said that sugar enhances the chance of developing dementia!” Aside from starting your sentence with a conjunction (albeit that the Chicago Manual of Style defends your right to do so), you are right. To return to where we started though, this study was about cocoa, not commercial sugary chocolate. Whatever benefits cocoa might offer could very well be negated by lots of sugar in commercial products. The interesting thing here though is that more flavanols did not yield greater benefits. So either it is not the flavanols yielding the benefit or there is only a certain level of flavanols required. Whatever the case though, to get the most from your cocoa mix it raw into your homemade sugar-free treats and your brain will be getting the most bang for your cocoa-buck.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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