With a recent study linking chocolate with positive cognition, Aoife Hardesty explores the world of chocolate after the indulgence of Easter weekend
For many, Easter has become a time for testing the limits of how many giant chocolate eggs you can fit in your belly at any one time. And so, by the time you are reading this, you may be swearing that you will never again eat another square of chocolate.
Every single year, news reports pop up from a wide variety of sources citing the reasons we should or should not be eating more or less chocolate. “Chocolate improves your mood!” “Chocolate makes you smarter!” “Chocolate causes cancer!” “Chocolate cures cancer!” It is important to note when reading such articles that they are not all based on scientific experiments.
However, a recently published results from the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study (MSLS) published in Appetite suggests eating chocolate once a week can have positive effects on mental cognition.
Chocolate began its journey as a beverage, made in the South Americas from cacao beans and unknown to the rest of the world until the 16th century. The beans themselves were considered so valuable they were used as a form of currency by the Aztecs. When chocolate became known to the Europeans, sugar was added as a sweetener and eventually, chocolate began to be made in a solid form for eating rather than drinking. Chocolate became considered a staple part of the diet, so much so that it was included in American soldiers’ rations during World War II.
“Cacao beans themselves were considered so valuable they were used as a form of currency by the Aztecs.”
In the 1970s, the MSLS began. In longitudinal studies, information is collected repeatedly from the same individuals over an extended period of time. The MSLS was gathering information on people’s cognitive abilities and aiming to observe the relationship between blood pressure and brain performance. In 2001, the study was expanded to include the relationship between diet and brain performance.
Almost 1,000 people regularly gave feedback via questionnaires on their diet and performed cognitive tests. The study found that people who reported eating chocolate “at least once a week” scored higher on several forms of cognitive tests designed to test visual-spatial learning, working memory and multi-tasking.
So now you’re probably thinking about increasing your weekly chocolate intake to give you better exam results, to become smarter, to ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Well, let’s not jump the gun.
Firstly, the information gathered only indicated if people ate chocolate never, once a week, or more than once a week. The amount of chocolate eaten was not quantified, so it can’t be said that eating one whole chocolate bar once a day, or twice a week, or every Sunday at exactly 17 minutes past 11 is the way to go.
Secondly, they did not collect any data about the type of chocolate people were eating. Anyone who has eaten chocolate can tell you that there is a difference between white and 85 per cent dark chocolate, and it is actually quite a big difference.
Put simply, the percentages let you know how dark the chocolate is. What the percentage is actually saying is the ratio of solid cocoa powder and cocoa butter in the chocolate. Cocoa butter is a vegetable fat, like olive oil, that comes from cocoa beans, but is not itself chocolate. So the “purer” chocolates are the darker chocolates, with the higher percentages.
Milk chocolate has a much lower percentage value than dark chocolate, but white chocolate does not in fact have any cocoa powder solids at all. White chocolate is made from cocoa butter mixed with milk and sugar.
Looking at the difference on a compositional level between different chocolates, exactly what chocolate the participants in the study were eating would be rather useful information to have.
Unfortunately for the sweeter-toothed amongst us, there have been a multitude of studies over the years which indicate the health benefits of dark chocolate, and really only dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate contains flavanols which have been shown to aid the body’s circulation system. Flavanols reduce blood pressure and prevent the growth of plaques along the walls of blood vessels. Flavanols also increase blood flow to the brain, and this function may be responsible for the cognitive benefits of chocolate.
“The study found that people who reported eating chocolate “at least once a week” scored higher on several forms of cognitive tests designed to test visual-spatial learning, working memory and multi-tasking.”
Sweeter chocolates do have some benefits, but mostly over mood. As with any food, sugar boosts energy and happiness, however, it can just be the temporary sugar high and can then leave you feeling wiped out of energy.
Beware, always, of articles promising you a certain food is full of surprising miracles of which you never dreamed, but also be wary of articles claiming certain foods are slowly killing you without your knowledge. Read critically and research. In this wonderful age full of technology, a quick Google search can provide a lot of information. And remember, scientists base conclusions on published, peer-reviewed scientific papers, not on hearsay and rumour, so if something sounds outlandish to you, look it up and see if and where it was published.
Chocolate seems to be chock-full of health benefits, so don’t feel too guilty for gorging on ridiculously large quantities of chocolate over Easter. But with the sugar contents of chocolate so high, don’t make a regular thing out of binge-chocolating. Or maybe do, because chocolate is amazing; the Incas themselves called it “the drink of the gods” and the scientific name for the cacao plant is Theobroma cacao, theo meaning god, and broma meaning drink.