Here’s some positive news you can raise a toast to during this chilly winter season.
According to new research, drinking hot chocolate may help make you become a smarter and faster thinker—whether you’re experiencing cognitive decline or not.
The benefits boil down to the flavanols that dwell in each yummy cup of cocoa. Cocoa flavanols have been studied for many years and their health benefits are profound. They’ve shown promise in lowering blood pressure, preventing blood clots and improving blood flow to the heart and the brain.
Flavanols are powerful antioxidant compounds found in many foods and drinks, such as tea, red wine, blueberries, apples, pears, cherries and peanuts.1 In fact, flavanols are what give fruits and vegetables their bright colors.
These nutrients are particularly abundant in the seeds of the cacao tree, also known as cacao beans. Fermenting and roasting these beans yields cocoa powder, which is used to make chocolate.
New Research Findings Reveal Memory Benefits
Now, researchers at the University of Birmingham have added one more reason to consider a cup of flavanol-rich hot chocolate this winter season.
In a small, two-trial study, researchers found that those who drank high flavanol cocoa experienced faster and greater brain oxygenation along with better performance on complex tests. These results were found in 14 out of 18 male adults from the study who were aged 18 to 45.
“We used cocoa in our experiment, but flavanols are extremely common in a wide range of fruit and vegetables,” said the report’s lead author, Catarina Rendeiro. “Overall, the findings suggest that the improvements in vascular activity after exposure to flavanols are connected to improvement in cognitive function.”
Ms. Rendeiro added that the four adults who failed to show improvement with flavanol intake “`already had the highest oxygenation responses at baseline.” In other words, those who are already quite fit have little room for improvement.
The team published the study in the journal Scientific Reports.2
Yes, there are a few limitations to the study. For instance, its low number of participants and the exclusion of females. Researchers explained that women were excluded to “ensure a more homogenous sample and minimize the impact of hormonal fluctuations.”
Improved Memory, Executive Function
In another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Italian researchers observed the effects of cocoa flavanols in 90 healthy 61- to 85-year-olds. These participants’ memory and thinking skills were in good shape for their ages at the start of the study.3
The subjects were divided into three different test groups. One group’s cocoa contained a low amount of cocoa flavanols, another’s contained a medium amount, and the third’s contained the highest amount.
Similar to the University of Birmingham study, after eight weeks people who consumed medium and high amounts of cocoa flavanols made significant improvements on tests that measured attention, executive function and memory.
These same researchers published another study in 2012 showing that daily consumption of cocoa flavanols was linked to improved thinking skills in older adults who had mild cognitive impairment.4
Benefiting from Cocoa
I can almost hear you thinking: ‘Wow, now I can drink cocoa all day long!’ Well, not quite. Hot cocoa and chocolate are high in calories—and sugar if you get the mixes instead of making your own from scratch. So, it’s not wise to go wild.
Also, not all cocoa powders are created equal.
According to Harvard Medical School, the amount of cocoa flavanols in cocoa powders varies widely.
The best way of getting cocoa flavanols is through cocoa powder that is as natural as possible and has not been processed through the commonly used Dutch method, which reduces the content of flavanols.
My personal recipe is 1.5 tablespoons of pure, organic dark chocolate powder in 12 to 14 ounces of hot (but not scalded) milk, with a little bit of sugar for sweetness, and four or five drops of vanilla extract. All of these amounts can be varied according to taste. The dose of chocolate I suggest will make your drink very chocolatey. The only challenge is getting the chocolate powder to dissolve as you’d like. It tends to clump. I sprinkle it in gradually.
If you’re craving a chocolate bar, opt for the dark chocolate that has the highest concentration of flavanols per ounce. These days it’s not uncommon to see this information right on the label.
And remember, there are plenty of flavanol-rich fruits and veggies out there that offer the very same health benefits without all of the calories.
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 101, Issue 3, March 2015, Pages 538–548