Dr. Georgie Crichton, of the Nutritional Physiology Research Centre at the University of South Australia and colleagues publish their findings in the journal Appetite.
While chocolate is still perceived as an indulgent treat, studies have increasingly documented the potential health benefits of habitual consumption.
Earlier this month, for example, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that eating chocolate daily during pregnancy may benefit fetal growth and development while an earlier study claims daily chocolate consumption may lower risk of stroke and heart disease.
But how does chocolate intake impact cognitive function? This is what Dr. Crichton and colleagues set out to determine, noting that there is a lack of information in this area.
“Little is known about the relationship between chocolate and cognitive functioning or brain health,” Dr. Crichton told MNT. “Most of the studies to date have focused on the acute effects of chocolate or cocoa consumption – i.e. consume a chocolate bar/cocoa-rich drink and assess immediate performance. We wanted to examine habitual or normal consumption with cognitive performance.”
Better cognitive performance with chocolate intake at least once weekly
The researchers analyzed the data of 968 people aged 23-98 who were free of dementia and part of the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study (MSLS), which was led by study co-author Prof. Merrill Elias, of the University of Maine.
The team analyzed the chocolate intake of participants over a 30-year period, as determined by information from a food frequency questionnaire. The questionnaire asked subjects how often they ate chocolate: never, rarely, once a week, two to four times a week, five to six times a week or once or more each day.
The cognitive function of participants was assessed through a series of tasks that tested visual-spatial memory and organization (the ability to understand and remember spatial relations among objects), working memory (the ability to process new and existing information), verbal memory (the ability to remember words and other factors related to language) and scanning and tracking (the ability to focus on specific objects).
The researchers found that individuals who consumed chocolate at least once a week performed significantly better on all cognitive tasks, compared with those who never or rarely ate chocolate.
After accounting for other possible confounding factors – including subjects’ age, sex, education, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood glucose levels, alcohol intake and total calorie intake – the findings remained, with the exception of working memory.
Benefits ‘may not be restricted to dark chocolate’
Dr. Crichton told MNT that they were not surprised by the results, explaining that cocoa contains flavanols that improve blood flow to the brain, and chocolate also contains small amounts of caffeine, which can boost alertness.
While the majority of previous studies assessing the health benefits of chocolate have focused on dark chocolate, due to its rich flavanol content, the researchers note that their study included participants who consumed dark, milk and white chocolate. “Our findings indicate that benefits may not be restricted to dark varieties,” said Dr. Crichton.
It is important to note, however, that chocolate has a high fat and sugar content, which can lead to weight gain if consumed in excess amounts, raising the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.
But based on their findings, the team says chocolate may be beneficial in moderation as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Dr. Crichton told MNT:
“We would recommend that a small intake of chocolate once or twice weekly may be incorporated into a healthy, balanced diet. And for those of us who prefer milk chocolate over dark, this may be good news.”
Last year, MNT investigated the other ways in which chocolate may be good for us.
Additional source: Mayo Clinic, Can chocolate be good for my health? accessed 21 April 2016.