A New Study Suggests Chocolate Can Improve Cognition, Focus

The study found that people who had cocoa flavanols before tests had higher brain performance. Do with this information what you will.

by Isabella Bridie DeLeo
Originally Published: 
A pair of kid's hands hold a chocolate bar

A new scientific study finds that chocolate might actually be good for your kids. The suggestion probably sounds contradictory, and not like something exhausted parents want to hear, but it might be the truth.

A new study published in Scientific Reports finds that a chemical contained in chocolate might actually improve brain function. So next time your kids are hunkering down to do homework or are taking a test, you might want to pack a mini-size chocolate bar or two for good measure. But, it can’t just be any kind of chocolate: it’s gotta be rich in flavanols.

By now, parents have likely heard something about dark chocolate being a healthier candy alternative due to the antioxidants contained in it. But the Scientific Report study focuses on a chemical that’s probably less familiar to the general public: flavanols, which are also found in dark chocolate.

According to Catarina Rendeiro, who researched this University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study, “Flavanols are small molecules found in many fruits and vegetables, and cocoa, too.” Rendeiro added, “They give fruits and vegetables their bright colors, and they are known to benefit vascular function. We wanted to know whether flavanols also benefit the brain vasculature and whether that could have a positive impact on cognitive function,” per EurekAlert!.

How did the team study the effects of flavanols on cognition? They recruited 18 healthy adult participants to take part in the experiment. The participants would be a part of two trials, one in which they would receive processed cocoa that was low in flavanols, and in another trial wherein they would consume flavanol-rich chocolate.

The researchers then had participants perform challenging, complex cognitive tasks and the team also studied the oxygenation in participants’ frontal cortex. As you can probably guess by the title of this article, the outcome of these tests showed that most participants performed the complex tasks faster — 11% more quickly — and had improved oxygenation after ingesting the flavanol-rich chocolate versus the processed kind. Four participants, however, didn’t report any sizable difference in either test performance or oxygenation.

Rendeiro explains this is because they “already had the highest oxygenation responses at baseline,” who adds that “Overall, the findings suggest that the improvements in vascular activity after exposure to flavanols are connected to the improvement in cognitive function.”

Despite the small size of this study, the findings suggest that there is at least a possible link between chocolate that contains flavanols and improved cognition. Maybe that will at least offer a little comfort next time your kids’ clamor for a chocolate bar at the grocery store — as long as they’re ready to reach for dark chocolate with sea salt or caramel.

For parents who are looking for chocolates that have flavanols, look for epicatechin and catechin, as well as procyanidins. The chocolates that tend to be richest in flavanols are dark chocolates — which might not be the best news for kids. Cocoa powder, which is sometimes used to make chocolate pudding or hot cocoa, also has a high percentage of flavanols. Milk chocolate, of course, has the lowest percent of flavanols.

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