Is Cacao Good for the Brain? What Research Says

Is cacao good for the brain
Is cacao good for the brain

Is chocolate good for the brain? I’m not sure, but chocolate is made from cacao and there is research that answers the question – Is cacao good for the brain?

What kid wouldn’t dream of living in a part of the world where chocolate grows on trees?”

Today’s post was inspired by a very special woman close to my heart: my Mom.

The truth is, my Mom actually lived that beautiful dream! Born in a village along the Amazon River, the Peruvian jungle was where she called home. Her childhood was filled with memories of foraging for delicious fruit in the rainforest.

She often came across cacao trees ready for harvest but almost always passed them up for ready-to-eat options. Why? Because transforming cacao seeds into chocolate takes an entire week!

She decided that this job was better suited to the elders of her village who would collect the fruit and lovingly brew it into a delicious brain-empowering drink. My Mom and her village valued the cacao tree for its nutritional benefits, but little did they know it was also a bioactive tonic for cognitive function and intellectual development.

So, is cacao good for the brain? Let’s take a look at some exciting research that changes how we view cacao.

Processing brain-building cacao fruit isn’t child’s play!

Study #1: Can Cacao Improve Mood and Cognition in Adults?

Australian researchers from Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology conducted a randomized controlled trial headed by Laura A. Massee.

Their goal was to assess chocolate’s effects on mood and cognition. The four-week study, published in the May 2015 Frontiers in Pharmacology, included 40 healthy adults aged 18 to 40.

The research team split the participants into two groups. One took chocolate tablets containing 250 mg of flavonols daily. The other received placebo tablets of cellulose powder.

What was their answer to the question “How is cacao good for the brain?” after observing chocolate consumption’s short-(2 to 3.5 hours) and long-term (four weeks) effects? 

In the short term, eating chocolate containing 250 grams of flavonol enhances cognitive function and decreases mental exhaustion.

Over the long term, eating the same amount of chocolate each day has no significant effect. However, the Swinburne team also noted that the cocoa consumers self-reported “significantly improved … mental fatigue.” 

Study #2:  Is Cacao What Makes Dark Chocolate Good for the Brain?

A second study published in the January 2019 British Journal of Nutrition investigated compared dark and white chocolate’s impacts on brain and gut health.

Led by gastroenterologist Mark Fox, M.D, of St. Claraspital, Basel, Switzerland, the five-day trial included 16 people between 18 and 65.

Only one of these might make you smarter!

Again, the research team randomly split the participants into two groups. 

They required the first group to eat 100 grams (3.5 ounces) or 72-percent dark chocolate each day. The dark chocolate also provided 250 mg of flavonols and 43 mg of caffeine.

The other group received a placebo of cacao-free white chocolate.

The Swiss study showed that the brains of the dark chocolate group experienced positive changes not found in those of the white chocolate group.

The researchers noted a possible correlation between those changes and the dark-chocolate group’s improvements in:

  • visual contrast sensitivity – testing one’s ability to see details at low contrast levels. 
  • time to detect motion direction – testing one’s ability to observe abrupt changes in velocity. 
  • spatial working memory performance – testing one’s ability to store and process information. 

 Two Systematic Reviews Ask “How is Cacao Good for the Brain?”

Researchers from Mexico’s National Institute of Genomic Medicine explored cocoa polyphenols’ influence on the human brain’s cognitive function.

Poloma K. Barrera-Reyes headed their review of 12 randomized controlled trials published in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition. Their compiled data linked daily cocoa consumption with significant positive effects on cognitive abilities.

And finally, Spanish researchers headed by Maria Angeles Martin from Madrid’s Institute of Food Science, Technology and Nutrition performed a systematic review of eleven studies.

They were determining cocoa’s effects on cognitive abilities in 366 children and adults younger than 25. The results of their review, published in the November 2020 MDPI journal Nutrients, revealed that:

  • Short-term cocoa consumption increases the brain’s blood circulation, oxygen supply, and connection-building BDNF.
  • Long-term cocoa consumption boosts young adults’ academic achievement by improving their memory, verbal learning, and attention skills.
  • Cocoa flavanols consumption has links to improved brain function and neuroplasticity.

Is cacao good for the brain? Cacao is a great natural source of brain-boosting benefits! Whilst many of us don’t have the privilege of foraging in the jungles of Peru, we can still access high-quality cacao mixes and chocolate bars at our local health food stores.

Even better, the next time you’re in Washington DC or Virginia, pop in at one of my Fruitive restaurants and try our Cacao Pow Liquid Meal. It may not be exactly what my Mom used to drink on the banks of the Amazonian River, but it’s what I’ll share with my Mom on our next Fruitive date!


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