By Dr. Laura Pawlak
There is universal agreement that chocolate is a feel good food. Chocolate melts in your mouth, releasing its sweet, creamy, cocoa flavor, and the brain follows with a burst of “happy” chemicals.
Beyond the sensory joy of eating chocolate, there are claims that chocolate is a healthy food for the brain. Most of us would gladly eat more chocolate if proven to benefit the brain.
Several ingredients in cocoa have been proposed to explain the possible cognitive benefits of chocolate. Cocoa contains caffeine, a substance that enhances cognitive functioning and alertness. Major nutrients have also been identified in the cocoa bean. Presently, studies focus on the chemical group called flavanols.
Flavanols are micronutrients found in many fruits and vegetables, especially the fruit called the cocoa bean, the basis of chocolate. Flavanols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties — important for brain health.
Small studies, often supported by chocolate manufacturers, state that the cocoa flavanols can boost mood and cognitive performance — as well as blood flow to the brain. Researchers are now evaluating the significance of these small studies by conducting large, clinical trials using a cocoa extract with known flavanol content, not chocolate.
A dose of 600-750 milligrams of flavanols is considered healthful for the brain. To obtain this dose, you would have to consume 4.75 ounces of dark chocolate, a total of 750 calories, or 40 ounces of milk chocolate, which has 5,850 calories.
A day with adequate flavanols from commercial chocolate is also a day heavy in sugar, saturated fat, and calories — not a formula for a sharp brain. Perhaps future studies examining chocolate’s healthful ingredients in the cocoa extract will provide more healthful ways to capture the goodness of the cocoa bean.
Meanwhile, manufacturers divert your focus from calories to health by presenting chocolate paired with a superfood, the avocado. Called a health food, the Avocado Chocolate Bar is made of freeze-dried avocado pulp powder, 70 percent dark chocolate — plus added sugar — and has nearly 600 calories.
The bar is a convenient, but calorie-laden, snack. The alternative — consuming whole, fresh plant food — is always a good choice for the brain.
My suggestion: Eat dark chocolate in moderation if you like it, not because you think it will make you smarter. For added flavanols, focus on the abundant amounts of this nutrient in grapes and berries. Enjoy!
Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renowned biochemist and dietitian emerita. She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.” On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.