This classic holiday drink may make you smarter

Gather around the fireplace and hold those warm cups of cocoa closer this year. New research proves the immutable benefits of consuming hot cocoa rich in cocoa flavanols.

Researchers at the University of Illinois performed a double-blind study to uncover the far-reaching benefits of consuming cocoa flavanols for improved cognitive functions.

The following study was co-authored by Catarina Rendeiro, a researcher and lecturer in nutritional sciences at the University of Birmingham alongside researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychology professors Monica Fabiani and Gabriele Gratton.

Let’s take a look at the benefits gleaned from indulging in a hot cup next!

What are flavanols and why are they good for me?

Flavanols are typically found in bright-colored fruits and vegetables, legumes, red wine, and tea. Now we know they’re also prevalent in cocoa so why should I incorporate more flavanols in my diet? Caterina Rendeiro explains why in the following press release.

“Flavanols are small molecules found in many fruits and vegetables, and cocoa, too. They give fruits and vegetables their bright colors, and they are known to benefit vascular function. We wanted to know whether flavanols also benefit the brain vasculature and whether that could have a positive impact on cognitive function.”

Make sure to check the milligram amount of cocoa flavanols in the chocolate or cocoa powder supplements you pick up because if it’s not over 200 milligrams you probably won’t enjoy the full benefits involved by incorporating it into your diet.

“The benefits of cocoa flavanols on cardiovascular health are well established, and for the general population a daily intake of 200 mg of cocoa flavanols is starting to emerge as a potential target within the context of a balanced diet,” says Dr. Alonso-Alonso in a brief released by Harvard Health Publishing.

The double-blind study

Researchers tested 18 willing participants to see how well cocoa flavanols improved cognitive brain function and oxygenation to the brain.

In one study the participants enjoyed a flavanol-rich concentrated cocoa drink while in the second study they drank a concoction void of this helpful nutrient. Neither participants nor the researchers were aware which study had them drinking the enhanced drink full of flavanols and which one was a processed drink with little to no nutritional value.

This helped the co-authors of this study reach an unbiased conclusion. Two hours after the participants drank the flavanol-rich cocoa and the placebo drink researchers introduced candidates to oxygen levels with 5% levels of carbon dioxide. This is 100 times the average concentration of carbon dioxide we usually deal with under normal air quality circumstances.

In order to see how the brain responded to this lack of oxygen scientists utilized near-infrared spectroscopy to capture how blood flowed to the frontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for planning, regulating emotions, and measured decision making.

This experiment also had researchers present participants with complex problem-solving scenarios that required thinking fast on their feet. Those who enjoyed flavanol-rich cocoa drinks performed far better than those who were given the placebo. One of the lead researchers for this experiment, Caterina Rendeiro, adds the following finds.

“The levels of maximal oxygenation were more than three times higher in the high-flavanol cocoa versus the low-flavanol cocoa, and the oxygenation response was about one minute faster. After ingesting the cocoa flavanols, participants also performed better on the most challenging cognitive tests, correctly solving problems 11% faster than they did at baseline or when they consumed cocoa with reduced flavanols.”

Some outlying data from this study also brings up an interesting find. There were 4 participants that did not show any marked improvement from ingesting flavanols when it came to optimizing oxygenation levels in the brain. This may be because they are already healthy and lead a fitter lifestyle than most. With this healthy baseline already in place, the results did not show any increased improvement from where they already were. Ensuring cognitive health is a multi-pronged approach incorporating exercise, yoga, meditation, and a healthy diet.

Conclusions from the study

I take great pleasure in knowing my chocolate addiction can actually improve what my brain’s already so capable of performing. Be sure to check the label for the concentration of cocoa and that it wasn’t processed in a way that negates all the beneficial nutrients to feed your brain. The more bitter the chocolate, the higher concentration of powerful brain-boosting nutrients inside. Dark chocolate definitely has the most flavanols per delicious square bite. This famous quote claims “chocolate is happiness you can eat” and I’m even happier knowing it will help me lead a healthier life for years to come. I’ll raise my hot cocoa with marshmallows to that!