Eating moderate amounts of dark chocolate benefits health in many ways. In fact, chocolate is now considered an anti-aging, anti-inflammatory “superfood” for the brain and body.
Studies examining the health benefits of chocolate continue to reveal new and exciting chocolate benefits, particularly in the realms of cognitive function, mood, and heart/ blood vessel health. The right kinds of chocolate, consumed regularly, can help keep your cardiovascular system pumping, your mind sharp and alert, and your mood calm and happy.
Here, we take a look at the research showing chocolate benefits include the ability to boost brain performance and enhance mood. See also our companion post, where we focus on the research-backed cardiovascular chocolate benefits.
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What Is Chocolate and Why Is It Healthy?
Chocolate is made from the fermented, roasted, and finely ground seeds of Theobroma cacao tree. A chocolate bar labeled “70 percent” contains 70 percent ground cacao and 30 percent sugar. The ground cacao is comprised of cacao butter (a natural oil) along with ground particles of the cacao seed. The ground cacao contains a potent mixture of phytochemicals with various medicinal properties.
The primary phytochemicals in cacao are the polyphenols (mostly flavanols and proanthocyanidins) and the methylxanthines (mostly theobromine).
Chocolate Benefits: Where They Come From
These compounds have been extensively studied and are thought to be responsible for most of chocolate’s therapeutic effects via their multiple effects in the body, including:
- Prevention of blood clots
- Blood vessel dilation
- Protection of nerve cells
- Reduction of insulin resistance
- Increased blood flow to the brain
- Regulation of genes that control body weight
- Inhibition of cancer growth
It is through these mechanisms and others that researchers have shown that chocolate benefits health, helping to treat and prevent diseases of the brain and cardiovascular system in particular.
Chocolate Benefits on Brain Health
- Chocolate and mood. Chocolate has been shown to improve depression and anxiety symptoms and help enhance feelings of calmness and contentedness. Both the flavanols and methylxanthines are believed to play a role in chocolate’s mood enhancing effects.In a recent review of eight studies that assessed chocolate on mood, five showed an improvement in mood. In another study, healthy subjects felt more calm and contented after consuming a daily dark chocolate drink containing a high amount of polyphenols. Those drinking a placebo chocolate drink containing no polyphenols, on the other hand, experienced no changes in mood.Compared to chocolate without polyphenols, high-polyphenol chocolate was also shown to improve depression and anxiety as well as other symptoms in people with chronic fatigue syndrome in another study.
- Chocolate benefits and cognitive function. The flavanols that get absorbed when you consume chocolate penetrate and accumulate in the brain regions involved in learning and memory, especially the hippocampus, according to researchers. These flavanols increase blood flow to the brain, promote the formation of new neurons, improve the functioning of neurons, enhance connections between neurons, and protect neurons from death by free radicals.[5,6]Chocolate and cocoa improve cognitive function in human double-blind, placebo controlled studies, both in healthy young adults and in older people with mild cognitive impairment.[7,8]The Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) study, published in the medical journal Hypertension in 2012, showed that performance on cognitive tests significantly improved in elderly individuals with mild cognitive impairment who consumed a daily cocoa drink containing high levels of flavanols for 8 weeks compared to those who consumed a low-flavanol cocoa drink. Even single doses of high-flavanol dark chocolate has been shown to improve performance on cognitive tests, including memory test, in healthy adults.
How to Get the Brain Benefits of Chocolate
The key to benefiting from the brain and mood-boosting effects of chocolate is to choose either a good dark chocolate or cocoa powder and to consume moderate amounts regularly. Different cocoa products and chocolates can have greatly differing amounts of flavanols and methylxanthines depending on the manufacturing process and cocoa content.
Dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa—70 percent or more—has a lot of these beneficial phytochemicals. On the other hand, chocolate that contains little cocoa has much less therapeutic value. You’ll learn more about exactly how to choose the right chocolate and how much to consume in Part 2, along with how chocolate benefits many aspects of heart and blood vessel health.
This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.
Originally published in 2015 and updated.