Most people think of chocolate as a modern indulgence. But chocolate got its start thousands of years ago in Southern Mexico. The pre-Olmec cultures treasured the cacao bean, which they fermented for a bitter beverage. This was the forerunner of today’s cocoa. When explorers took it back to Europe, someone decided to add sugar and it became a popular sweet treat. Researchers are rediscovering the powerful health benefits of cocoa flavanols. What does the very latest research reveal about cocoa for brain health?
Could Cocoa Flavanols Help Ward Off Dementia?
Q. I think I read somewhere that cocoa compounds are good for the brain, so I started taking a tablespoon a day in my coffee. I am concerned about dementia because it runs in my mother’s family. Both my mother and her sister suffered from it before their deaths. I am still doing quite well, managing my property with a horse, three dogs and two cats.
I mention all this because I am starting to notice some mental slippage in my cousin (my mother’s sister’s daughter). Yet I am quite sure that my own memory is better than it was five years ago when I started my cocoa regimen. What’s the evidence that cocoa really could be protective?
A. The evidence on cocoa for brain health is more suggestive than conclusive.
On the other hand, a systematic review of the medical literature found
“that the biomolecules contained in cocoa may offer promising tools for managing cognitive decline, if provided in adequate dosages and duration of treatment” (Antioxidants, July 12, 2022).
Like chocolate, some cocoa products may be contaminated with cadmium or lead. ConsumerLab.com recently analyzed several products. They do charge for full access to the report. CocoaVia, the supplement highest in cocoa flavanols, also had the least contamination. (CocoaVia is an underwriter of our nationally syndicated public radio show. Get 15% off your order by using the discount code Peoples15.)
Skeptics Should Read the Research:
A physician chastised us several months ago. She disapproved of many companies that advertise supplements that purport to keep you sharp without any evidence to support them. (So do we.) Unfortunately, though, she also maintained that there was no evidence to support cocoa for brain health. We doubt that this health professional bothered to check the medical literature. If she had, she would have found a surprising number of studies supporting the health benefits of these antioxidants.
The latest research was published in a highly regarded journal, Scientific Reports (Nov. 24, 2020).
The authors introduce their new research this way:
“Lifespan wear and tear of the vascular system due to poor nutrition and lack of fitness, among other factors, can accelerate cognitive aging and lead to dementia. There is epidemiological evidence suggesting that flavonoids, a group of small molecules present in fruits and vegetables, can protect against vascular disease and cardiovascular-related mortality. In particular, cocoa flavanols, a sub-group of flavonoids (also present in berries, grapes, apples and tea) have been shown to improve endothelial function in humans quite rapidly (within 1–2 h) by enhancing vasodilatory properties of peripheral arteries.
“Another emerging line of research further suggests that this class of plant-derived compounds may protect against cognitive decline in aging and cognitive resilience to neuropsychiatric disorders and stress.”
Translating ScienceSpeak into English can be challenging. This time, though, it’s pretty straightforward. Cocoa flavonoids or flavanols are present in cacao beans. These natural substances make blood vessels more flexible. That is what these researchers are saying when they mention improved endothelial function. Vasodilation means the blood vessels expand. That allows for more oxygen and nutrients to reach sensitive tissue. Keeping blood moving effortlessly throughout our brains is desirable. You know what cognitive decline is all about. We would all prefer to keep our brains resilient as we age.
The New Research Supports Cocoa for Brain Health:
The study in Scientific Reports suggests a mechanism for the cognitive benefits of cocoa flavanols. Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK teamed up with investigators at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. They recruited healthy young adults and had them breathe carbon-dioxide enriched air. This puts a strain on the blood vessels in the brain.
They then measured blood flow to the frontal cortex. The subjects were pre-treated with either high-flavanol (HF) cocoa or low-flavanol (LF) cocoa (control) drinks. The volunteers were asked to perform challenging cognitive tasks during both experiments.
When they drank the high-flavanol cocoa prior to the carbon-dioxide challenge they were faster at solving problems and their brains became oxygenated more quickly and more thoroughly.
The authors highlight this message:
“Dietary flavanols improve cognitive performance when cognitive demand is high”
They go on to say:
“The present study shows, for the first time, that cocoa flavanols lead to more efficient tissue oxygenation responses in frontal areas of the brain during a CO2-challenge in healthy young individuals. This suggests that, similarly to peripheral vascular benefits, flavanols result in clinically relevant improvements in cerebrovascular reactivity in a healthy brain.”
The researchers suggest that diets that incorporate plant-based flavanols could improve blood oxygenation and cognitive performance, especially in high-risk individuals such as smokers and people with diabetes or hypertension. Older people might also benefit.
More Research on Cocoa for Brain Health:
A systematic review of 12 randomized controlled trials noted that (Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, March, 2020):
“Overall, findings suggest that consumption of cocoa flavan-3-ols exert positive effects associated with cognitive processes.”
The authors concluded
“Overall, this set of studies suggest a positive effect of cocoa polyphenols on memory and executive function.”
What Is the Mechanism of Cocoa for Brain Health?
Scientists like to understand how things work. If someone says cocoa is good for cognitive functioning, they want to know why. A study published in Psychopharmacology (Dec. 2019) offers an explanation.
High-flavanol cocoa increases nitric oxide production. This in turn relaxes the lining of blood vessels so they dilate and improve circulation. That is especially important for people with type 1 diabetes. Circulatory problems are common with this condition.
A randomized, controlled trial tested whether cocoa flavanol (CF) supplements could improve blood flow and cognitive function in people with type 1 diabetes. Reaction time was improved when people took 900 mg of cocoa flavanols.
How to Get High-Flavanol Cocoa Supplements:
When most people think of cocoa, they remember their childhood and imagine a steaming mug with marshmallows on top. You can’t count on that kind of drink to provide a consistently high level of cocoa flavanols. What’s more, you definitely don’t want all that sugar. Chocolate candy also contains too much sugar to be health food.
We are happy to alert you to a new supplement from the makers of CocoaVia. Full disclosure: The makers of these unique cocoa supplements underwrite our radio show and newsletter.
CocoaVia is a brand of Mars, Incorporated, a company that has been investing in flavanol research for decades. In that time, the scientists supported by Mars grants have produced convincing evidence of the benefits of cocoa for brain health. The company, in turn, has used that evidence to develop a new supplement, called CocoaVia Memory+. It contains 750 mg of cocoa flavanols, far more than other supplements. We’d like to tell you about the research.
Cocoa Flavanols and Word Recall:
In one study, Italian scientists recruited 90 elderly people who did not have cognitive deficits (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March 2015). They divided them randomly into three groups, and each group had a daily drink with a different level of cocoa flavanols, without the investigators or the volunteers knowing who got what. The high-dose group got 993 mg of flavanols, while the intermediate dose was 520 mg. The group getting the 48 mg low-flavanol beverages essentially served as control. In addition, each participants took numerous tests before and after the eight weeks of supplementation.
During those two months, there were no changes in the scores on the MMSE (mini-mental state examination), used to screen for dementia. All the participants got better at two other types of tests: the trail-making test and the verbal fluency test. (Practice can help.) However, those drinking the high-flavanol beverages did significantly better than those in the low-flavanol control group, responding more quickly and remembering many more words.
There were also physiological differences: people getting high-flavanol drinks lowered their insulin resistance, blood pressure and blood fat oxidation. Presumably, these helpful changes all help the brain work better.
Cocoa Flavanols and Spatial Memory:
Scientists at Columbia University had studied animals and found that flavanols could improve spatial memory. To test this in human beings, they recruited 37 people between 50 and 69 years old (Nature Neuroscience, Dec. 2014). Each one took a high- or low-flavanol supplement for three months. Those who took the high-flavanol supplement (900 mg cocoa flavanols with 138 mg epicatechin) performed significantly better on the final cognitive tests and in the fMRI, beating the low-flavanol group by 630 ms (milliseconds). That might not sound like much, but it is equivalent to an aging difference of decades (Nature Neuroscience, Dec. 2014).
In conclusion, an accompanying editorial notes:
“Needless to say, the search for both pharmacological and nonpharmacological interventions to combat cognitive decline and neural loss will march on. But today, Brickman et al provide compelling evidence that including flavanols in your daily diet is good for the aging brain.”
There will be more research on cocoa flavanols and brain health in the future. We suspect that the Columbia University scientists have further results to report. In addition, the COSMOS trial (Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamins Outcomes Study) participants will be taking their supplements through the end of 2020. After that, the investigators will be analyzing the data they have collected on health and cognitive function over the years of the study. So stay tuned to learn more about cocoa compounds and their effects in the future.
Tap the Power of Cocoa Flavanols and Brain Health for Yourself:
Just go to www.CocoaVia.com. Look for the new Memory+ supplements with 750 mg of cocoa flavanols. To experience the benefits for yourself, plan to take the supplement daily for at least eight weeks. Be sure to save: use the code PEOPLES15 for a 15% discount on your first month.
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