The word “chocolate” has been traced back to the Aztec word “xocoatl” which referred to a bitter drink brewed with cacao. The Aztecs also believed that cacao seeds were a gift from their God of wisdom, and the seeds were so valuable they were used as a form of currency. We now know that cacao is indeed very valuable for its health benefits.
Many of us have heard that dark chocolate is a superfood, and that eating dark chocolate has been linked to many different health benefits. These health benefits include stress reduction, improved heart health, and new studies have revealed that dark chocolate can actually make your brain smarter and improve memory. Raw dark chocolate, which is at least 70% cacao, is a major source of flavonoids, mainly flavanols, which are most famous for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits. It is the cacao flavonoids that are found to have brain benefits.
Just so we all understand the difference. It isn’t until after the cacao beans are roasted and processed that they are called cocoa. Most cocoa powders have additives like sweeteners or cocoa butter. Once roasted and processed (turning cacao to cocoa), the beans lose much of their nutritional benefits. When you see cacao nibs, powdered cacao (or cacao powder) in the grocery stores, the bean is in their raw state—uncooked, additive free, and unprocessed contain antioxidants.
These flavonoids have been shown to create enhanced expression of neuroprotective and neuromodulatory proteins that promote neurogenesis and brain connectivity (brain growth). When the flavonoids are absorbed they penetrate and accumulate in the brain regions that are involved in learning and memory, especially in the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays an important part of our limbic system, the region that regulates our emotions. It is also associated with long-term memory and spatial navigation.
Lee Berk, who is part of a California team’s initial studies at Loma Linda University have shown that absorbed cacao flavonoids penetrate and accumulate in regions of the brain associated with learning and memory. Berk believes that the consumption of cacao results in nerve-altering and protective proteins that promote nerve cell growth, increase brain function and brain communication, improve blood flow and promote the formation of blood vessels in the brain and sensory systems. He states that “we have for the first time shown that there is a possible connection of neuroelectric activities that initiate the mechanisms of cacao’s beneficial effects on brain reasoning and intellect, synchronization, memory, recall, mood and behavior.”
Lee Berk presented his findings at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Neuroscience in Chicago in late October 2015. He said that this study provides evidence that EEG, gamma wave band frequency, is started by cacao consumption. Cacao can regulate various levels of sensory awareness and increase the density of different EEG frequencies. The most interesting finding is that the EEG gamma wave band frequency associated with the brain’s highest level of mental processing, enhanced memory and recall, and physiological benefits.
Research done at Sir Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Centre at the University of Nottingham tested 16 healthy young subjects blood oxygenation levels. The data presented shows an increase in the blood oxygenation level-dependent signal intensity in response to a cognitive task following ingestion of flavanol-rich cocoa (5 days of 150 mg of cocoa flavanols). A pilot study evaluated the relationship between cerebral blood flow and a single acute dose (450 mg flavanols) of flavanol-rich cocoa and showed that flavanol-rich cocoa can increase the cerebral blood flow to gray matter, suggesting the potential of cocoa flavanols for treatment of vascular impairment, including dementia and strokes, and thus for maintaining cardiovascular health.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition performed by Dr. Giovambattista Desideri studied the cognitive effects of cocoa flavanols on men and women aged 61-85 years of age, with no evidence of cognitive dysfunction. The participants were given one of three flavanol groups. A drink containing either high (993 mg), intermediate (520 mg) or low (48 mg) amounts of cocoa flavanols every day for eight weeks. The nutritionally matched drinks were specially prepared.
The high- and intermediate-flavanol cocoa drinks were produced using Mars’ patented Cocoapro® process, while the low-flavanol drink was made with a highly processed, alkalized cocoa powder. Other than the inclusion of the test drink, normal diets and regular lifestyle were maintained throughout the study.At the start of the study and again after eight weeks, cognitive function was assessed using a battery of tests that examined memory, retention, recall, as well as executive function.
Among those individuals who regularly consumed either the high- or intermediate-flavanol drinks, there were significant improvements in overall cognitive function after only eight weeks. As cognitive function was normal for this aged population, this study shows that even cognitively healthy individuals can quickly benefit from the regular inclusion of cocoa flavanols in their diets.
How to take:
According to David Wolfe in his book, Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future, a low intake of cacao would account to 3-4 cacao beans for each 100 pounds of body weight. Cacao is high in the omega-6 fatty acids, which can potentially increase inflammatory responses in the body.
- 100% Organic – and beware that “Organic” does not mean “100% Organic”
- Fair Trade
- > 70% cacao
- Not processed with alkali