Just Eat It: Chocolate’s Role in Cognitive Function

Food is an important part of life. Not only does it sustain us and help us survive, but it also gives us pleasure by stimulating our reward center. One specific food that often causes us pleasure is chocolate. Chocolate contains a number of compounds most of which work on the dopaminergic, opioid, and/or cannabinoid receptors. These receptors allow us to make us feel calm and less stress. These feelings, which are often associated with pleasure, are part of the reason that chocolate has been consumed and enjoyed by cultures around the world for thousands of years (Chatterjee, 2014). In 2009 alone, 7.2 million tons of chocolate was consumed worldwide (Statista, 2015).

Chocolate has not only used as a way to fulfill cravings but also to reduce fever, promote strength before sexual conquests, decrease ‘female complaints,’ encourage sleep, and increase breast-milk production (Wilson, 2010). Recently, chocolate has been linked to a number of cardiovascular benefits including better sensitivity to insulin, blood pressure, endothelial function, and cerebral blood flow (Crichton, Elia, & Alkerwi, 2016). Despite the large pool of research looking at the interaction between chocolate and the cardiovascular system, little information has been researched regarding chocolate’s effect on cognitive function. This is surprising since about 20% of the compounds found in chocolate are flavonoids. Flavonoids are naturally occurring plant metabolites, which have been found to improve cognitive function in both epidemiological studies and clinical trials (Crichton et al., 2016). Chocolate also contains two stimulants, theobromine and caffeine, which have both been associated with improved cognitive functioning.

As we age, our cognitive function changes. While our knowledge and procedural memory stay about the same, our selective attention, processing speed, and episodic and working memory often decline through our life (Giles, D’Anci, & Kanarek, 2015). This consequence of aging, however, can be avoided through a number of environmental factors, such as the nutrients that we take in, including chocolate.

In previous studies, higher levels of flavanol, a subgroup of flavonoids, resulted in improved performance on particular mathematical tasks, improved visual processing speeds, improved visual spatial working memory, better reaction time, and better contrast sensitivity. For elderly people that are cognitively intact, intermediate and high levels of flavanol were associated with enhancements in processing speeds, attentional tasks, and verbal fluency (Crichton et al., 2016).

Crichton et al. (2016) looked at the association between chocolate and cognitive functioning when adjusted for cardiovascular, lifestyle, and dietary factors. In their research, dietary intake was assessed using the Nutrition and Health Questionnaire. This questionnaire allowed the participants to give demographic, socioeconomic, and lifestyle characteristics, as well as, to estimate how often they consumed a number of foods. This value then used to calculate a mean to estimate the number of times each food was eaten on a daily basis. Participants were also given the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study (MSLS) neuropsychological test battery. The MSLS measures a number of cognitive domains including visual-spatial memory and organization, scanning and tracking, verbal episodic memory, and working memory. Lastly, physical activity was measured using the Nurses’ Health Study Activity Questionnaire. The results of this study, like those that were found previously showed that across a range of cognitive functions, the intake of chocolate had a positive influence. Specifically, the group found that the consumption of chocolate was significantly associated with better visual-spatial memory and organization, working memory, abstract reasoning, and scanning and tracking (Crichton et al., 2016).

While Crichton et al. (2016) has found positive results, not all studies have found similar findings. Giles et al. (2015), suggests that since the research on chocolate and cognition is still relatively new that the research, particularly in older adults, has been inconsistent. Crichton et al. (2016) claims that one of the factors that cause these inconsistencies is the varying flavanol content in chocolate. Since this component, along with caffeine and theobromine, seem to be the major influences on cognition, they need to be kept constant to determine the relationship between chocolate and our cognitive function. Despite these inconsistencies, it is known that chocolate is beneficial for our cardiovascular system and stress, which is good enough for me! After all,”All you really need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt” (Lucy Van Pelt, Peanuts).

 

Reference:

Chatterjee, A. (2014). Part II, Chapter 2: Food. The Aesthetic Brain, 79-81.

Crichton, G. E., Elias, M. F., Alkerwi, A. (2016). Chocolate intake is associated with better cognitive function: The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study. Appetite, 100, 126-132.

Giles, G. E., D’Anci, K. E., Kanarek, R. B. (2015). Chapter 8: Nutrition in the Prevention and Treatment of Cognitive Decline. Handbook of Clinical Nutrition and Aging (3rd ed.). New York: Springer Science+Business Media.

http://www.famous-quotes-and-quotations.com/lucy_van_pelt.html

Statista. Statistics and facts on the chocolate industry. Retrieved April 18, 2016; Available from: http://www.statista.com/statistics/238849/global-chocolate-consumption/

Wilson, P. K. (2010). Centuries of seeking chocolate’s medicinal benefits. Lancet, 376, 158-159.

 

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