Yes finally it’s official, chocolate is good for you.
Most of us already knew that and so did many people in high places, even if they didn’t know why. Chocolate has been a part of NASA's astronaut dietary program for a long time. Chocolate was called the secret weapon of the second world war and army rations still include it. Talk to any sailor and ask him what he has in the life raft emergency bag and you will always find the chocolate next to the water bottles and sextant. Then of course as every Harry Potter fan knows, chocolate is the crucial rescue remedy if you have passed out during a dementor attack.
But can it really make you smarter?
In Dec 2012 a Swiss doctor published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that clearly established a link between chocolate consumption per capita and the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million people in a country. Funnily enough the Swiss came out top with the most Nobel laureates and the highest chocolate consumption. Clearly the idea was to show that if the right statistical models are used, statisticians can show a link between anything.
There is however some basis for trying to link the two – chocolate is actually good for the brain.
It’s all about flavenols. In the early 00`s scientists started to get interested in the effects of chocolate on the body and initial studies showed that flavanol-rich cocoa increased blood flow to the brain, hence the idea that it might improve brain function. Researchers started looking into the possibilities that flavenols might help patients with dementia or aid recovery after strokes.
The most recent studies have shown that flavenols penetrate and accumulate in the brain regions involved in learning and memory and that they work in two ways. Firstly they have a protective effect on function and brain connectivity through neurones and, secondly, through blood-flow improvement in the brain and sensory systems.
In a 2012 study, cocoa flavenols were given to elderly patients with mild memory and speech problems. The patients were then tested for improvement. Those taking the flavenols improved in both speech and the speed with which they could do the tests. Flavenol-rich chocolate also helped with insulin resistance and in lowering blood pressure as well as with mood. A cup of dark cocoa is clearly recommended for the elderly.
Researchers also turned their attention to the healthy. A group of healthy young people were given strenuous mental exercises to do and half of them were given flavenols and the other half not. The group getting the chocolate with flavenols showed considerably better results in the tests and suffered much less mental fatigue. So it’s a no brainer, as they say, get the kids onto chocolate at exam time.
But not any old chocolate will do. The flavenols are in the cocoa powder that goes into the chocolate and if it’s good powder it can contain up to 10% of its weight in flavonoids but this depends on how much the powder has been processed. The good flavenols are quite bitter and so they are often removed from the powder when making chocolate. So try and find the darkest chocolate with the least processing. Or buy decent cocoa powder and make it into drinks.
Next thing you know, you might have a Nobel laureate on your hands.
On the other hand it might be a chicken and egg scenario. Maybe brainboxes have some genetic predisposition that makes them eat more chocolate. Either way, when you tuck into your next bar of dark chocolate you can be safe in the knowledge that either you are very brainy or you are going to become very brainy.
Presumably Big Pharma will soon be trying to chemically manufacture and bottle all that. Well good luck to them. We shall be sticking to the flavenols that come with the extra feel good factors - the crackle of the wrapper as we fight to remove it, the anticipation, the smell and that amazing moment as the first bit melts onto the taste buds. Then, after we’ve finished the whole packet, we really won’t mind at all who gets a Nobel prize.