Cocoa – and the chocolate made from it – appear to protect and boost brain power.
For many folks, chocolate is a feel-good food … if only because it delivers fat, sugar, and luscious flavor. Chocolate even enraptures some … an effect too strong to attribute to fat, sugar, and flavor alone.
Cocoa contains a mood-elevating chemical called phenethylamine, but it's metabolized rapidly and no significant amounts reach the brain.
Caffeine is known to elevate mood, and cocoa contains a closely related compound called theobromine.
But neither of two recent trials found significant mood-elevating effects from the amounts of theobromine found in cocoa and dark chocolate (Judelson DA et al. 2013; Baggott MJ et al. 2013).
New clinical results confirm that cocoa can boost mood, and reveal a possible, unexpected reason for this common reaction.
Antioxidants in cocoa and chocolate prove calming and relaxing
The results of a preliminary clinical trial may reveal a chief reason why many folks find cocoa and chocolate relaxing ... even mood-elevating (Pase MP et al. 2013).
Scientists from Australia's Swinburne University of Technology recruited 72 healthy men and women aged 40-65 for a controlled, randomized, double-blind trial.
The participants were assigned to drink one of three dark chocolate beverages:
- Placebo drink with no cocoa polyphenols
- Moderate-dose drink with 250 mg of cocoa polyphenols
- High-dose drink providing 500 mg of cocoa polyphenols
The high-dose drink contained an amount easily obtained from non-Dutched cocoa or extra-dark chocolate. (See our sidebar, “Cocoa/Chocolate criteria”.)
To ensure you're getting ample amounts of beneficial polyphenol antioxidants, follow these guidelines.
Look for chocolate containing at least 65 percent cocoa ... preferably 75-85 percent cocoa (or more), and certified organic and fair trade.
When it comes to cocoa powder, look for “natural” cocoa that hasn't been treated with alkali.
This common but unnecessary commercial process – called Dutching – reduces cocoa's mild bitterness a bit ... but destroys most of its beneficial polyphenols.
The drink mixes came in identical packaging, so that neither the investigators nor the participants know which drink the volunteers were consuming.
The participants drank their assigned beverage once a day for 30 days.
All 72 volunteers took standard tests designed to measure cognitive performance (Cognitive Drug Research system) and mood (Bond-Lader Visual Analogue Scale).
The tests were administered at various times, to gauge the immediate and long-term effects of each drink:
- Just before drinking their assigned beverage.
- 1, 2.5, and 4 hours after drinking their assigned beverage.
- Just before and just after the 30 day trial period.
No mood or cognition gains were detected in the tests taken within hours of drinking either of the two beverages containing cocoa polyphenols.
After 30 days, those who drank the high-dose beverage (500 mg of cocoa polyphenols) displayed greater calmness and contentedness, compared with the other two groups.
Neither the placebo group nor the moderate-dose group (250 mg per day) showed significant gains in mood or calmness.
Nor were any significant cognitive performance gains detected in the high- or moderate-dose polyphenol groups … a result at odds with the positive research results cited and linked to above.
As the Aussie team wrote, “This randomized controlled trial is perhaps the first to demonstrate the positive effects of cocoa polyphenols on mood … [it] provides a rationale for exploring whether cocoa polyphenols can ameliorate … clinical anxiety or depression.” (Pase MP et al. 2013)
- Baggott MJ, Childs E, Hart AB, de Bruin E, Palmer AA, Wilkinson JE, de Wit H. Psychopharmacology of theobromine in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2013 Jul;228(1):109-18. doi: 10.1007/s00213-013-3021-0. Epub 2013 Feb 19.
- Crews WD Jr, Harrison DW, Wright JW. A double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial of the effects of dark chocolate and cocoa on variables associated with neuropsychological functioning and cardiovascular health: clinical findings from a sample of healthy, cognitively intact older adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Apr;87(4):872-80.
- Judelson DA, Preston AG, Miller DL, Muñoz CX, Kellogg MD, Lieberman HR. Effects of Theobromine and Caffeine on Mood and Vigilance. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2013 Jun 12. [Epub ahead of print]
- Pase MP, Scholey AB, Pipingas A, Kras M, Nolidin K, Gibbs A, Wesnes K, Stough C. Cocoa polyphenols enhance positive mood states but not cognitive performance: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. J Psychopharmacol. 2013 May;27(5):451-8. doi: 10.1177/0269881112473791. Epub 2013 Jan 29.
- Swinburne University of Technology (STU). Dark chocolate improves calmness. May 3, 2013. Accessed at http://www.swinburne.edu.au/chancellery/mediacentre/media-centre/news/2013/05/dark-chocolate-improves-calmness