Is dark chocolate really brain-healthy?

A question I’m always asked at Easter is whether dark chocolate is really brain-healthy.

As with most things, the answer is more nuanced than media headlines will have us believe. 

Claims about the heart and brain-benefits of chocolate began with the observation that Kuna Indians living on the San Blas Islands off Panama have lower blood pressure, fewer heart attacks and strokes, less cancer and live longer than Kuna who live on the mainland (Panama City). When scientists started investigating why, they discovered that the islanders consumed 10 times more cocoa than the mainlanders. Kuna islanders drink multiple cups of cocoa every day from the time they’re weaned until the day they die. They also incorporate cocoa into many recipes. In contrast, mainland Kuna drink much less cocoa, and what they use is commercially produced and highly processed.

What is it about cocoa that promotes heart and brain health?

Cocoa beans contain compounds called flavanols that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, brain-boosting and blood-pressure-lowering properties in the laboratory, but whether this translates into health benefits for humans who consume chocolate has yet to be established. 

One of the problems is that the more a cocoa bean is processed, the more it loses any potential health benefits.  

To make cocoa (cacao) beans edible, they need to be fermented, dried and roasted. Unfortunately, roasting for long periods reduces the bean’s nutritional value. The beans are then crushed and separated from their husk (outer shell) to make broken cacao pieces called cacao nibs, which are ground into a paste and melted to form a liquid called cocoa mass. Finally, cocoa mass is mixed with sugar and other ingredients to make chocolate. 

Cocoa mass can be separated into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Cocoa solids are further pulverised to make cocoa powder, the stuff we mix with milk for a warm drink. Cocoa powder can be sold with no further processing but it’s usually treated with an alkalising agent to reduce its acidity and bitterness and make it more palatable. This is known as Dutched cocoa and is what’s used in most chocolates, drink powders, ice creams and baking. Unfortunately, Dutching significantly lowers the antioxidant content of cocoa, thus removing a lot of its salubrious properties.

Therefore, most of the headlines about dark chocolate being a superfood for the brain are hyperbolic clickbait.

A few trials have suggested that cocoa flavanols might be neuroprotective, might increase blood flow to the hippocampus and might improve certain aspects of brain function. One particularly abundant flavanol in cacao called (-)-epicatechin (pronounced ‘minus epicatechin’) supports the growth of brain cells and blood vessels. When pure (-)-epicatechin was fed to snails, mice and rats, it improved their memory and preserved their cognitive abilities as they aged. 

Cocoa flavanols do a great job when it comes to animals used in research, but when humans eat or drink chocolate, the concentration of flavanols is greatly reduced by fermenting, roasting and alkalising (Dutching).

All other things being equal, the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the more flavanols your chocolate is likely to contain. But all other things are not equal. The variety of bean, soil, growing conditions and degree of processing all influence flavanol content. Raw (minimally roasted) cocoa is better than heavily roasted, and natural (non-alkalised) is better than Dutched. 

Cocoa contains more flavanols than dark chocolate, which has more flavanols than milk chocolate. White chocolate contains zero flavanols and is just an ultra-processed sugar bomb (sorry to be the bearer of bad news).

Dark chocolate can also contain large amounts of sugar, artificial sweeteners, flavourings, emulsifiers and other additives that would undo the benefits of flavanols.

If there are brain and heart benefits, they appear to come from long-term consumption of raw (minimally roasted), natural (not Dutched or alkalised) cocoa powder. If you want to know whether or not your cocoa or chocolate are Dutched, you’ll have to contact the manufacturer because it is rarely stated on the packaging. I also use natural unsweetened cocoa in the following healthful ways: 

  • Add it to warm (not boiling) milk or water because boiling will lower the flavanol content.
  • Sprinkle it over a bowl of berries.
  • Coat roasted carrots, beetroot or pumpkin with cocoa after the vegetables are cooked to preserve the flavanols. You can experiment with different vegetables. 
  • I’ve even stirred cocoa through bolognaise sauce or lentils after cooking.

Enjoy your Easter and bon appétit!

If you’d like to do a deep dive on the health-benefits or otherwise of chocolate, I have a dedicated chapter in my book, Can Adventure Prevent Dementia? 

Please forward this Health-e-Byte to anyone who loves chocolate.

Photo Credit: I took this photo when I was in Amsterdam for the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in July 2023. 

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