December 2023

Cocoa for Cognition

Cocoa flavanols have long been touted for their heart health benefits. Now they’re getting some attention for cognitive function. Can chocolate really improve memory and thinking skills?

Cocoa has CNS stimulant effects, and there’s early evidence that cocoa flavanols might improve some measures of cognitive function through various mechanisms, such as increased brain blood flow. But a large clinical trial in older adults now shows that taking cocoa extract containing 500 mg of flavanols by mouth daily for 3 years doesn’t improve various measures of cognitive function when compared with placebo, or when taken along with a multivitamin. Episodic memory, global cognition, and executive function were among the measures evaluated. This conflicts with earlier studies in younger individuals showing that it might offer some benefits.

This news might disappoint patients looking to justify their increased chocolate intake during the holidays. While the overall evidence on cognitive function remains conflicting, cocoa flavanols do seem to benefit other aspects of health, including blood pressure and heart disease risk. So there’s still a good reason to incorporate a bit of chocolate into the diet. But explain to patients that not all chocolates are equal – it’s the cocoa bean powder that contains antioxidants called flavanols, not the added milk and sugar. These are the compounds that are responsible for the benefits associated with chocolate. While the color of the chocolate and the percentage of cocoa present won’t give you exact details on flavanol content, it can help to identify healthier options. The higher the cocoa percentage, or the darker the chocolate, the better – more cocoa means more flavanols. But remember that moderation is key as there are concerns about heavy metals in dark chocolate.

Check out our recently updated cocoa monograph to learn more.

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