Cardiologist Dr. Franz H. Messerli had an interesting hunch regarding cacao and cognition. He speculated that the greatest minds of our time are well fed — on chocolate, that is. It turns out that Switzerland has both the highest chocolate consumption and the most Nobel Prize winners per capita, and other major Nobel-producing countries consume more than the average share of cocoa.
Messerli noted that his findings, which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, don’t necessarily mean that chocolate turns your average Joe into a genius. He admitted the possibility that smart people are more likely to know of the health benefits of chocolate, and therefore eat more than their less-educated counterparts.
In spite of his reasonable skepticism of his own theory, Messerli was on to something. Eating chocolate really might make you smarter! But the key is is to go for the real thing, which is cacao. Most candy and chocolate bars on the supermarket shelves are definitely not brain-boosters. Yeah, I used to adore Twix bars too, but trust me, once you go to the dark side, the sugar-filled, milked-down versions of chocolate that make you fat and mess up your blood sugar just won’t do.
IQ Testing For Cacao And Cognition
Five signs point to cocoa as an intellect-boosting powerhouse, according to epidemiologist Dr. Eric Ding, lead researcher of a 2012 study on cocoa and cognition which was published in Hypertension Journal. The doctor found that cocoa flavonoids improve cognitive function in the elderly. These micronutrients may also enhance mental prowess in all of us by raising “good” HDL cholesterol levels, lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol, and improving blood flow, all of which are linked to more smarts.
“I want to be clear that this was a study on cocoa flavonoids, not chocolate,” Ding says, as the fat and sugar in chocolate may likely negate the effects of flavonoids. Subjects were given the flavonoid equivalent of 30 milk chocolate bars a day, or eight to nine dark bars. Can you imagine the impact of that much chocolate on your hips, let alone your health? Supplements are far more practical and don’t have the caloric effect, which could affect health benefits anyway.
And A Little Kick, Too
That scrumptiousness of chocolate stimulates more than just your taste buds — it also kick-starts your brain with a small dose of caffeine. While it won’t replace a cup of java, it contains enough of the natural compound for a mild jolt. And not only does caffeine make you feel smarter, but it may also enhance brain function for the long haul.
In 2012, the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease published a study on caffeine intake and dementia. Researchers measured the amount of caffeine in the blood of 124 participants, and then tracked their cognitive function over two to four years. They found that those with relatively high caffeine levels showed fewer signs of cognitive degeneration, making them less prone develop Alzheimer’s disease.
The Dark Side Is The Only Side
Milk chocolate may be yummy, but it’s just not “real” chocolate. There isn’t enough cocoa in it to give you the same health benefits as dark chocolate, or even better, plain cacao.
Milk chocolate has a sweeter taste because — you guessed it — it’s packed with sugar. In fact, a single Hershey’s milk chocolate candy bar has 24 grams of sugar, just one gram shy of the amount most women need in an entire day. That sweetened bar also contains 40 percent of the saturated fat we adults need in a day, and 20 percent of our total fat requirement.
Worse yet, milk binds to healthy antioxidants in chocolate, making it impossible for your body to absorb them; that’s why you shouldn’t down a glass of milk with your chocolaty snacks. And forget about white chocolate completely since it has no chocolate solids, only scads of fat and sugar.
Also keep in mind that many products with sugar from beets, soy lecithin, and milk derivatives may contain pesticides and be genetically modified.
People who don’t like the bitter taste of cacao should “eat a little at a time, and they’ll learn to love it,” says Deanna Moore, founder of Chocolatl raw cacao foods. Moore also recommends using cacao nibs for baking, hot cocoa, and smoothies.
If you can’t live without the candy bar, opt for a treat with the highest cacao content possible; a bar with 72 percent cacao solids has about 12 percent less sugar than one that’s just 60 percent cacao bar, according to the National Confectioners Association’s Chocolate Council.
And It’s Anti-Aging, Too!
Cocoa goodness helps much more than just your noodle. Those flavonoids protect your body from toxins and may help fight aging. Cocoa also fights heart disease and stroke by reducing blood clot risk and possibly lowering blood pressure. Plus, cacao is rich in important minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Perhaps the most fabulous chocolaty trait of all — OK, besides that luscious taste — is cocoa’s ability to boost serotonin and endorphin levels, making you feel mighty fine.
Bottom line? In moderation, cocoa could be sweet news for your brain, body, and mood. Just skip the fatty, sugary filler and go straight for the real thing.
“Cocoa research is at a tipping point,” Ding says. “We continue to uncover wide-ranging benefits of cocoa flavonols for health and longevity, and it looks like this trend will continue.”
Now those are words we can live by.