Looking back on the past couple weeks, I can definitely confirm that this trip has been one of gustatory indulgence. Surrounded by dazzling array of markets and boulangeries, I quickly abandoned my gluten-free/organic/veggie-based diet in exchange for a month-long foray into the hedonistic world of carbohydrates and simple sugars. The biggest change, however, came in the form of massive increases in the amount of chocolate I consumed on a daily basis. For a self-acknowledged Chocoholic, Paris exists simultaneously as the “worst” (and best) place to live. Being vegan, I was ecstatic to discover a vast array of artisan, naturally dairy-free creations present at every Chocolatier I visited. From velvety ganache to decadent truffles, with every bite I fell deeper under a magical, cocoa-fueled spell.
However, even as “Viva la Chocolate” became my new mentality, I wondered how the habitual inclusion of this high-sugar, high-fat product would affect my short and long-term health. When I return stateside, should I include less chocolate in my diet…. or avoid it all together? How much is “too much” when it comes to such an addictive dessert?
To investigate these questions, I turned to a recent study by Kwok et al. that examined the association between chocolate intake and future cardiovascular events. Based on long term data collected in the EPIC-Norfolk population study from a total of 20,591 European men and women, the cumulative meta-results of the study actually suggest that a higher chocolate intake is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Wait…. what?! So my consumption of chocolate may actually be helping me, rather than hurting me? Not convinced, I looked to other research to confirm these results.
Immediately, I found a fascinating study by Massee et al. examining the short and long term effects of cocoa supplementation on mood and mental fatigue, cognitive performance and cardiovascular functioning in young adults. To make a key distinction, cacao is the raw seeds obtained from the Theobrama cacao tree, cocoa is the roasted, grounded product, and chocolate is the processed confectionary dessert with added sugars and fats (Latif, 2013). Cacao seeds have been used as medicine for centuries and are rich in with catechin and epicatechin antioxidants known as “flavanols” (Nehlig, 2013). Based on previous animal studies, the researchers’ hypothesized that cocoa flavanols may have the ability to act on the human brain and improve cognitive performance through direct enhancement of memory systems (Nehlig, 2013). Furthermore, cocoa flavanals could potentially improve cardiovascular health by regulating blood pressure and cerebral blood flow (Dinges,2006).
In the experiment, the researchers’ investigated the effects of cocoa supplementation in 40 healthy young adults using a placebo-controlled, double blind test over a four-week period. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either an active cocoa tablet containing 250mg cacao seed extract OR an identical placebo tablet containing only cellulose powder. The researchers’ examined both the baseline vs acute (before and 2 hours after the tablets were ingested) and baseline vs chronic effects (4 weeks of daily tablet ingestion). To assess cognitive performance, the participants completed eight computer-based tasks including reaction/decision time, inhibition, and recognition/spatial/contextual memory. To measure mood and mental fatigue, the participants completed the mentally fatiguing cognitive demand battery test (CBD) which requires completion of two serial subtraction tests, a rapid visual information processing task (RVIP) and a visual cognitive fatigue scale. To assess cardiovascular health, the researchers’ measured the participant’s blood pressure and cerebral blood flow. The participants completed a total of three testing sessions: baseline (before ingestion), acute (2-3.5 hours after tablet ingestion) and sub-chronic (4 weeks after initial testing).
At the acute time point, cocoa-supplemented participants reported feeling significantly less mentally fatigued prior to completing the cognitive demand battery test and showed improved performance on the subtraction component of the CDB compared to the placebo group. Therefore, the researchers’ concluded that 250 mg dose of cocoa flavanols was found to improve mental fatigue and minor aspects of cognitive performance acutely, but not sub-chronically (aka long term) during a highly demanding task.
However, in both the short and long term measures, the study failed to produce any evidence that cocoa increases performance in the SUCCAB tests or enhances cardiovascular function. These results could have been affected by the study’s small size, 30 day experiment course, or insufficient dosage. In the future, I would be interested to see if these same effects could be mirrored in older adults and with different amounts of cocoa used.
Though still a skeptic at heart, based on the findings from these two studies, perhaps my addiction to chocolate isn’t as bad as I initially thought. In fact, if consumed in moderation (working on that one), chocolate may actually benefit some aspects of my mental and physical health. With that in mind, I’ll feel a little less guilty every time I gobble down another praline I made in Choco Story. After all, it’s the smart thing to do right?
Dinges DF (2006) Cocoa flavanols, cerebral blood flow, cognition, and health: going forward. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol. 47Suppl 2 ():S221-3.
Kwok CS, Boekholdt SM, Lentjes MA, Yoke YK, Ruben RN, Yeong JK, Wareham NJ, Myint PK, Khaw KT (2015) Habitual chocolate consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease among healthy men and women. Heart. 2014-307050
Latif R (2013) Chocolate/cocoa and human health: a review. Neth J Med.71 (2):63-8.
Massee LA, Reid K, Pase M, Travica N, Yoganathan J, Scholey A, Macpherson H, Kennedy G, Sali A, Pipingas A (2015) The acute and sub-chronic effects of cocoa flavanols on mood, cognitive and cardiovascular health in young healthy adults: a randomized, controlled trial. Front Pharmacol. 6:93.
Nehlig A (2013) The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance.Br J Clin Pharmacol. 75(3):716-27
Young Oliver “Sponge Bob ‘Did You Say Chocolate.’” Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube 16 May 2010. Web. 20 June 2016.