Does the Brain and Heart Love Chocolate?

Shower your Valentine with Dark chocolate – Something sweet for you and your sweetheart that is good for your brain and heart by Nancy B. Emerson Lombardo, Ph.D.

Can chocolate be a brain and body health food? Absolutely! IF you eat it in moderation and IF it is dark chocolate that is ideally at least 60-70% cocoa (the higher the percent (%) cocoa, the more health benefit). A recommended daily serving size is 1.0 oz (28 grams) to 1.6 oz (40 grams) *[1] /day of dark chocolate which is 170 to 230 calories/day. The maximum daily amount noted by some studies is 3.5 oz, which is a lot of calories (550-600) which might cause one to either gain weight, or not eat the needed variety of other healthy foods. Eating excess dark chocolate adds too much saturated fat, sugar, and calories to one’s diet. Overdoing the amount of even dark chocolate can erase the health benefits.

Keep in mind that chocolate is an extremely complicated topic when it comes to health research, in part because there are so many different kinds and in part because it is so important in human usage, with lots of strong beliefs about its benefits or harm. It will take a while for nutrition and medical science to check them all out. In the meantime, here is some of what people have concluded based on multiple studies.
Dark Chocolate’s benefit for the brain is both direct and indirect, through improved heart and blood sugar-related health.

Heart health: Clinical research trials suggest that dark chocolate and pure cocoa are as powerful as spices, tea, red wine, and berries in enhancing some aspects of heart health. Most of the health benefits from dark chocolate come from the potent antioxidant phytonutrients it contains, namely flavonoid compounds (a type of polyphenol) which include the monomer forms epicatechins and catechins, as well as the polymer forms, called procyanidins or proanthcyandins, and several other nutrients including stimulants theobromine and caffeine. (To learn more about these cocoa antioxidants see ) To put the antioxidant potency of pure cocoa in perspective, the ORAC value of pure natural cocoa powder is about the same per weight as several dried herbs such as basil and parsley, and about 1/3 that of several ground spices such as cinnamon.

The flavonoid nutrients promote health by increasing the blood flow in arteries and the heart, lowering blood pressure[1], lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol,[2] improving the health of endothelial cells,[3] and improving blood sugar control.[4] To view a list of recent clinical trials using cocoa products, see clinical trials.
The amount of the important antioxidants decrease a factor of 10, in descending order, from pure natural cocoa powder (the highest), milk chocolate to the least (chocolate syrup) among brown-colored chocolate products available to consumers.[5] And white chocolate having virtually none. The more the natural cocoa content, and the less sugar and added dairy fat, the better for health. The “Dutch processed” chocolate, the kind typically used in beverages, and pastries, removes the key antioxidants; heavily dutched chocolates have only 10% of the original, although that is still way better than white chocolate. See article below for more about the different kinds of chocolate and their nutrient content.

How dark chocolate may help the brain: Cross Sectional[7] Studies suggest that regular intake of dark chocolate (about 10g/day) is associated with better cognitive performance in the elderly. ( ) So far there haven’t been clinical trials similar to those in the heart health field to verify this finding for older adults, although more recent clinical trials have shown positive results for younger adults in selected cognitive areas such as visual-spatial and decision reaction time.

Chocolate also contains many minerals important for brain and body health such as magnesium, calcium, and potassium. 1 oz of 70% dark chocolate contains 65 mg magnesium (18% daily requirement), 87 mg phosphorus (12% daily requirement), 21mg calcium(2% daily requirement), and 203 mg potassium (4% daily requirement).
One well known medical scientist at Yale University, David Katz, MD concludes his review of the science to date[8] “Cocoa can protect nerves from injury and inflammation, protect the skin from oxidative damage from UV radiation in topical preparations, and have beneficial effects on satiety, cognitive function, and mood. As cocoa is predominantly consumed as energy-dense chocolate, potential detrimental effects of overconsumption exist, including increased risk of weight gain. Overall, research to date suggests that the benefits of moderate cocoa or dark chocolate consumption likely outweigh the risks.”

Cautions: People with migraine headaches often avoid chocolate of all kinds because it is thought to trigger migraines in some people. In addition, chocolate does contain caffeine (about 24 mg/oz – about 1/8 to ¼ amount in a cup of coffee) so those very sensitive to caffeine may limit their intake, especially in the evening.
SAVE YOUR DOGS FROM DEATH BY CHOCOLATE: Also, chocolate and cocoa products are indeed poisonous to dogs and some other pets, so please keep them out of reach.

[1] 3.5 oz (100 grams) is the typical size of a flat dark chocolate candy bar. 1.0 oz would be a few squares or 1/4 of that bar.
[2] Grassi D, Desideri G, Ferri C. Blood pressure and cardiovascular risk: what about cocoa and chocolate? Arch Biochem Biophys. 2010 Sep 1;501(1):112-5. Epub 2010 Jun 1.
[3] Shrime MG, Bauer SR, McDonald AC, Chowdhury NH, Coltart CE, Ding EL. Flavonoid-rich cocoa consumption affects multiple cardiovascular risk factors in a meta-analysis of short-term studies. J Nutr. 2011 Nov;141(11):1982-8. Epub 2011 Sep 28.
[4] Engler MB, Engler MM, Chen CY, Malloy MJ, Browne A, Chiu EY, Kwak HK, Milbury P, Paul SM, Blumberg J, Mietus-Snyder ML. Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate improves endothelial function and increases plasma epicatechin concentrations in healthy adults. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Jun;23(3):197-204.
[5] Grassi D, Desideri G, Necozione S, Lippi C, Casale R, Properzi G, Blumberg JB, Ferri C. Blood pressure is reduced and insulin sensitivity increased in glucose-intolerant, hypertensive subjects after 15 days of consuming high-polyphenol dark chocolate. J Nutr. 2008 Sep;138(9):1671-6.
[6] Miller KB, Hurst WJ, Flannigan N, Ou B, Lee CY, Smith N, Stuart DA. Survey of commercially available chocolate- and cocoa-containing products in the United States. J Agric Food Chem. 2009 Oct 14;57(19):9169-80.
[7] Nurk E, Refsum H, Drevon CA, Tell GS, Nygaard HA, Engedal K, Smith AD. Intake of flavonoid-rich wine, tea, and chocolate by elderly men and women is associated with better cognitive test performance. J Nutr. 2009 Jan;139(1):120-7. Epub 2008 Dec 3.
[8] Katz DL, Doughty K, Ali A. Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2011 Nov 15;15(10):2779-811. doi: 10.1089/ars.2010.3697. Epub 2011 Jun 13.

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