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New Study Shows Cocoa Compounds May Help Improve Memory

The latest study shows that taking high-dose cocoa flavanols can help improve memory for lists. People with poor diets get the biggest boost.
New Study Shows Cocoa Compounds May Help Improve Memory
Different conditions of cocoa. Various cocoa – beans, beans, ground, crushed cocoa powder, chocolate paste, chocolate pieces and hot chocolate in a cup. On a wooden rustic background with copy space for text

Many people find cocoa brings back fond memories of childhood. Mom often put a marshmallow in a mug of cocoa for a special treat. The flavor was divine. However, this favorite treat might have been a bit light on some important cocoa compounds. It bears little resemblance to the drink the Aztecs favored. Their beverage contained cacao and various spices such as chili peppers, but no sugar and certainly no marshmallows. The Aztecs had no idea this royal infusion might help improve memory, although they gave it credit for many other benefits.

The Power of Cacao:

For thousands of years, Mesoamericans treasured cacao, the plant from which cocoa and chocolate are derived. They attributed spiritual power to the drink and thought it would help people in the afterlife. They even valued cacao beans as a substitute for money.

Today, scientists are finding that the flavanol compounds in cocoa have impressive health benefits. Research has shown that high-flavanol cocoa (without the marshmallow) can lower blood pressure (Frontiers in Physiology, Feb. 18, 2021).  That appears to be due to its ability to increase blood vessel flexibility (Food & Function, Oct. 16, 2019).

Cocoa Compounds to Improve Memory:

Investigators have also considered whether cocoa flavanols could benefit cognition. In one study, they found that people taking cocoa flavanols had better brain oxygenation under stress (Scientific Reports, Nov. 24, 2020).  Moreover, the volunteers also performed better on demanding cognitive tests if they had taken these cocoa compounds.

Some health professionals have a hard time believing that cocoa could have such health benefits. One physician doubted that there could be any scientific support for the idea that cocoa flavanols improve memory or brain function.

New Research Shows Flavanols Improve Memory for Lists:

The latest research, though, has been published in Scientific Reports (Feb. 15, 2021). The Columbia University investigators recruited 211 healthy older people (50 to 75 years of age). In this randomized controlled trial, the participants took placebo or 260, 510 or 770 mg per day of cocoa flavanols (CocoaVia).

The scientists write:

“Our data demonstrate that list learning-task performance was improved by the dietary flavanol intervention. It is noteworthy that the effect size for the observed improvements in this cohort of generally healthy individuals seems to be directly related to habitual diet quality. Individuals with lower aHEI score more likely experienced greater treatment effects…”

The aHEI is the alternative Healthy Eating Index. Presumably, people with low scores are consuming diets that don’t have many other dietary flavanols from fruits and vegetables.

The researchers continue:

“This finding provides novel insights into the dynamics and functional plasticity of list-learning task performance in the context of nutrition, supporting the notion that this hippocampal-dependent task is sensitive to relatively short-term dietary modifications.”

It’s important to note that the measurable gains in cognitive performance disappeared after eight weeks of not taking the supplement.

The investigators conclude:

“this study raises the possibility that at the population level, flavanol-based dietary interventions may have a beneficial impact on cognitive aging. Considering the increasing world-wide aging population due to the overall reduction in late life morbidities, normal age-related memory decline is now considered an impending cognitive epidemic. In this context, dietary flavanols may offer meaningful benefits to cognitive health, although further studies are needed.”

Improving Blood Flow Even Under Stress:

A recent study in healthy young Britons compared their blood flow under stress with and without cocoa flavanols (Nutrients, March 27, 2021). Mental stress makes blood vessels constrict, impedes blood flow and raises blood pressure. However, the individuals who had taken cocoa flavanols had a much less extreme reaction to a stressful mental arithmetic test. While the blood flow was measured in the forearm, cocoa compounds might have a similar impact on blood flow to the brain.

Where Can You Find Compounds to Help Your Memory?

Keep in mind that the research found the greatest benefit among people who were not consuming diets full of healthy plant-derived flavanols. Numerous studies suggest that people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables rich in these compounds have better cognitive function (Brain Plasticity, Feb. 9, 2021). On the other hand, if you find it challenging to eat a range of colorful veggies and fruits, you might want to consider a supplement to help improve memory.

One of the best supplements of cocoa flavanols is CocoaVia, the same one used in the study at Columbia University. We do have a relationship to disclose: CocoaVia helps to support our radio show and podcast. However, an objective third party, ConsumerLab.com, also ranked CocoaVia Memory+ capsules at the top of its list of supplements, with 750 mg of cocoa flavanols and very low levels of cadmium. As you may know, cadmium is a toxic mineral that can occur in large amounts in some cocoa extracts, cocoa and chocolate. 

To try it for yourself, you can go to CocoaVia.com. Plan on taking it every day for eight weeks. Remember, you can get a healthy 25% discount on 1-month orders of CocoaVia if you use the code PEOPLES25 when you check out. You can also get an additional 10% off already-discounted 3- and 6-month orders with code PEOPLES10. Limit one use per customer.

For a limited time, CocoaVia is having a site-wide sale with discounts up to 35% off. Check it out between April 20, 2021 and May 4, 2021.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
  • Siransy-Balayssac E et al, "Weekly physiological changes in blood pressure during three weeks daily consumption of 10 grams of cocoa powder among young Black Africans in Côte d'Ivoire." Frontiers in Physiology, Feb. 18, 2021. DOI: 10.3389/fphys.2021.634791
  • Sun Y et al, "Dose-response relationship between cocoa flavanols and human endothelial function: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials." Food & Function, Oct. 16, 2019. DOI: 10.1039/c9fo01747j
  • Gratton G et al, "Dietary flavanols improve cerebral cortical oxygenation and cognition in healthy adults." Scientific Reports, Nov. 24, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-76160-9
  • Sloan RP et al, "Insights into the role of diet and dietary flavanols in cognitive aging: results of a randomized controlled trial." Scientific Reports, Feb. 15, 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-83370-2
  • Baynham R et al, "Cocoa flavanols improve vascular responses to acute mental stress in young healthy adults." Nutrients, March 27, 2021. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13041103
  • Lamport DJ & Williams CM, "Polyphenols and cognition in humans: An overview of current evidence from recent systematic reviews and meta-analyses." Brain Plasticity, Feb. 9, 2021. DOI: 10.3233/BPL-200111
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