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How to Use Chocolate as a Cognitive Enhancer


Is chocolate a cognitive enhancer? A new study suggests that it is, but the effect depends on who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Italian scientists reviewed research on the effects of chocolate on cognitive performance (the article is available here). Their focus was on flavonoids—compounds that have been suspected of protecting and enhancing the brain and other organs. The cocoa bean that defines chocolate is a rich source of flavonoids. Sweet!

Results were promising. Several well-designed studies have found short-term and long-term effects of chocolate on cognitive performance. However, some experiments found weaker results—and the details could point to who benefits most from chocolate intake.

Older adults saw the most benefit. For example, in one study of elderly participants, 8 weeks of regular consumption of chocolate led to better processing speed, executive function, and working memory. The type of task also matters. The most demanding tasks, under demanding conditions (such as sleep loss), were the ones that benefited from a dose of chocolate. Healthy people doing simpler tasks benefited less or not at all.

In other words, chocolate most helped those who really needed it. Chocolate is sweet like that.

There are some obvious caveats. Chocolate may be rich in flavonoids, but it’s also rich in calories, and eating too much is not good for cognition. Here are some tips for helping your brain get the most out of chocolate:

  • Dark chocolate is best. Milk chocolate has less than half the flavonoid content, and white chocolate isn’t really chocolate; it has zero flavonoids. Note that it’s the chocolate that has the benefits, so if’s only a thin layer wrapped around a wad of caramel, peanut butter, and nougat, then enjoy, but don’t kid yourself by thinking it’s a health supplement.
  • Don’t overdo it. In the long-term studies, one flavonoid-rich dark chocolate bar or cocoa drink per day did it. And don’t let chocolate consumption increase your overall calorie count.
  • Have some chocolate a few hours before a task, especially if it’s cognitively demanding or you’re running on less sleep than usual. But avoid it before bed; chocolate has a small amount of caffeine in it, after all.

Maybe you’ll enjoy your chocolate a little more, knowing it could help your brain.

This post was written by Mike Battista, a staff scientist at Cambridge Brain Sciences.