Boosting brain health and mood with chocolate

If you would characterize your relationship with chocolate as complicated, you're not alone. Sweet, velvety and smooth, chocolate thrills the senses, making it very popular, especially at Valentine's Day. There is mounting evidence that a few nibbles of dark chocolate can not only satisfy a craving, but can also be beneficial for your health.

Lee S. Berk, an associate dean of research affairs at the School of Allied Health Professions and a researcher in psychoneuroimmunology and food science at Loma Linda University has been studying chocolate and its effects on human health for many years. His team has found that consuming dark chocolate that has a high concentration of cacao (minimally 70% cacao, 30% organic cane sugar) has positive effects on stress levels, inflammation, mood, memory and immunity.

"Consumption of 70% cacao has been shown to increase gamma brain frequency, which is associated with reducing incidence of dementia, memory loss and recall. Brain gamma frequency is positively associated with inducing some of the higher levels of cognitive processing in the human brain," said Berg. "Cacao is also associated with increasing beneficial neuropeptides in the brain and thus enhancing mood state."

Plant-based bioactive compounds called flavan-3-ols found in dark chocolate and other foods are known to promote health. While you don't need these compounds to survive, studies have shown that bioactives can play a role in reducing chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Studies show that eating foods that contain flavan-3-ols may improve blood pressure, cholesterol concentrations and blood sugar.

How much is best?

Researchers have not come up with a hard and fast recommendation of how much dark chocolate should be consumed to achieve the potential health benefits. Experts recommend minimally processed dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao content, and maybe have an ounce as an occasional treat. You should always check the label to be aware of the calorie, fat and sugar content, which could potentially affect the overall health benefit.

Eating chocolate at least once a week has been linked with a reduced risk of heart disease, according to research published this month in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, a journal of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) in 2020. The researchers conducted a combined analysis of studies from the past five decades examining the association between chocolate consumption and coronary artery disease (the blockage of the coronary arteries). The analysis included six studies with a total of 336,289 participants who reported their chocolate consumption.

During a median follow-up of nearly nine years, 14,043 participants developed coronary artery disease and 4,667 had a heart attack (when coronary artery disease progresses and the flow of blood to the heart is suddenly blocked). Chocolate appears promising for prevention of coronary artery disease, but more research is needed to pinpoint how much and what kind of chocolate could be recommended, report the researchers.

While it's not clear how much chocolate is optimal, experts warn against overeating. While moderate amounts of chocolate may protect the coronary arteries, it's likely that large quantities do not, due to the calories, sugar, milk and fat in commercially available products.

A treat from and for the heart

Consuming moderate amounts of chocolate has been associated with significantly lower risk of being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AF), a common and dangerous type of irregular heartbeat. In a large study of men and women in Denmark led by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, researchers found there were benefits from chocolate and its ability to lower the risk of arrhythmias.

The study included 55,502 men and women participating in the Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Study. Researchers considered study participants' body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol, which were measured at the time participants were recruited between December 1993 and May 1997. They also looked at participants' health conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, and data on their diet and lifestyle, from questionnaires.

There were 3,346 cases of AF among the study participants over a 13.5-year follow-up period. Compared with those who ate a one-ounce serving of chocolate less than once per month, men and women who ate one to three servings per month had a 10% lower rate of AF. Those who ate one serving per week had a 17% lower rate and those who ate two to six servings per week had a 20% lower rate. The benefit leveled off slightly with greater amounts of chocolate consumption, with those eating one or more servings per day having a 16% lower AF rate. Results were similar for men and women.

Beth Czerwony, RD, registered dietitian for Cleveland Clinic, recommends avoiding anything with a lot of chemicals. The less ingredients, the better. Another added perk, dark chocolate with 85% cocoa has been shown to have mood boosting effects. For those wondering about white chocolate, Czerwony said that's not really even chocolate at all. It's more of a wax and tends to have the most sugar and fat.

Ancient treasure

The history of chocolate, which is derived from the beans of the cacao tree, can be traced to the ancient Maya, and even earlier to the ancient Olmecs of southern Mexico. Much later, Christopher Columbus encountered the cacao bean on his fourth mission to the Americas on Aug. 15, 1502, according to Wikipedia. He and his crew seized a large native canoe that proved to contain among other goods for trade, cacao beans. Columbus' son Ferdinand commented that the natives greatly valued the beans, which he termed almonds. Later, chocolate became popular in the courts of Europe and the streets of colonial America and chocolate soon evolved into the universally loved commodity it is today.