The Flavanols In Cocoa May Support Brain Health, Study Suggests
Whether you're spending the holidays with family, a few close friends, or on your own this year, desserts are certainly a festive highlight. Sure, it's important to limit sugar and other inflammatory foods to keep your immune system strong, but new research makes a brain-healthy case for eating cocoa.
The small study, published in Scientific Reports, found the antioxidant flavanols in cocoa can support brain vascular function and cognitive performance1 in young, healthy adults.
How researchers tested brain vascular function.
Researchers from the University of Birmingham and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked at 18 nonsmoking adults with no history of brain, heart, vascular, or respiratory diseases. Each of the participants identified as male and was between 18 and 45 years old.
This triple-masked study randomly divided participants into two groups: One group consumed flavanol-rich cocoa, and the other consumed processed cocoa with very low levels of flavanols—neither group knew which type of cocoa they were consuming.
Two hours after consuming the cacao, participants were asked to breathe air containing 5% carbon dioxide. "This is a standard method for challenging brain vasculature to determine how well it responds," co-author Gabriele Gratton, Ph.D., said in a news release. The body's normal response is to increase blood flow to the brain, bringing in more oxygen and allowing the brain to eliminate more carbon dioxide, he explained.
The link between cocoa and brain health.
Those who ate the flavanol-concentrated cacao were better able to defend against the excess carbon dioxide. In other words, the oxygenation process (increasing oxygen, decreasing CO2) was much faster for that group.
More specifically, "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," lead researcher Catarina Rendeiro, Ph.D., said.
When taking cognitive tests, the flavanol-rich group outperformed their baseline performance and the reduced flavanol group by 11%.
So, what are flavanols exactly? "Flavanols are small molecules found in many fruits and vegetables, and cocoa, too," Rendeiro stated. "They give fruits and vegetables their bright colors, and they are known to benefit vascular function."
Based on these findings, cocoa may support brain health and cognitive functioning in most people. Those who didn't see improvements (4/18) already had high oxygenation responses prior to the study. "This may indicate that those who are already quite fit have little room for improvement," Rendeiro said.
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.