Can Chocolate Make Your Brain Work Better?

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Ninh Khuong
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Researchers have found that consuming foods rich in flavanols is linked to more efficient blood flow, which can improve brain function.

What if eating dark chocolate made your brain work better? This might be true, thanks to flavanols! Cocoa beans are the main ingredient in chocolate. And they contain lots of flavanols.

What’s the difference between grey matter and white matter?

Volunteers in a research study drank a cocoa beverage high in flavanols. This increased blood flow to their grey matter

Grey matter is on the outside of your brain and the inside of your spinal cord. It controls movement, learning, memory, emotions and language. Grey matter processes information. Then it hands the results over to white matter. It’s found on the inside of your brain and the outside of your spinal cord. The white matter transmits the information to different parts of your body. 

So it’s not surprising that people with more grey matter have better cognitive function. In other words, they think better.

Locations in the brain of white matter and grey matter as well as the axons that connect them together
Locations in the brain of white matter and grey matter as well as the axons that connect them together (Let’s Talk Science using an image by Ms. Emma Vought [CC BY 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons).

 

Grey matter needs a constant supply of oxygen to process information. Your brain uses about 20% of the oxygen in your blood. Since so much thinking goes on inside your grey matter, it uses a lot of that oxygen. In fact, grey matter consumes over 90% of the oxygen used by your brain!

Axons are thin extensions that transmit information between neurons. A myelin sheath covers the axons in white matter. Myelin is a fatty protein that insulates the axons. It also boosts the signals sent by the white matter to different parts of your body. 

Grey matter has a lot of neurons. But they’re unmyelinated. That means they’re not covered by myelin. Myelin has a high percentage of fat (70%) compared to proteins (30%). And it uses almost no oxygen. So to send signals, unmyelinated axons in your grey matter need more blood flow. And myelinated axons in your white matter need less blood flow.

The neuron on the left is found in white matter and the neuron on the right is found in grey matter
The neuron on the left is found in white matter and the neuron on the right is found in grey matter (Source: Let’s Talk Science using an image by Dhp1080 [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons).

 

Illustration - Text Version

Parts of a neuron include the axon terminals, axon, myelin sheaths, Schwann’s cells, Nodes of Ranvier, cell body, nucleus and dendrites. Grey matter neurons do not have Schwann's cells, Nodes of Ranvier or Myelin sheaths.

 

How do flavionals affect the brain?

Researchers are looking for ways to increase oxygen supply to the brain. They have begun to focus on flavanols. That’s because flavanols contain methylxanthines. These chemicals help deliver oxygen to your grey matter. They dilate (open up) airways in your lungs. And they help relax constricted (tightened) blood vessels. This all helps blood pump more efficiently. And that means more oxygen can get to where it’s needed.

Molecular structure of a flavanol on the right and a methylxanthine on the right
Molecular structure of a flavanol on the left and a methylxanthine on the right (Let’s Talk Science using a public domain by NEUROtiker via Wikimedia Commons).

Researchers have linked foods rich in flavanols to more efficient blood flow. And more efficient blood flow can improve brain function. 

Participants in a 2017 study took 900 mg of flavanols every day for three months. The results of the study showed increased blood flow to the hippocampus. That's the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. All that thinking also means the hippocampus has a lot of grey matter. The same study found that people who eat more flavanols are better at recognizing visual patterns. They’re also better at taking memory tests.

So should you go ahead and eat as much chocolate as you want? Sorry, but no! Not even the authors of these studies go that far. Cocoa loses most of its flavanols during the chocolate-making process. 

Did you know? 

Flavanols give unprocessed cocoa a very strong smell and taste. When making chocolate, cocoa beans are fermented, alkalized and roasted. These steps improve the flavour.

You need about 900 mg of flavanols a day to really boost your brain power. That means eating ten bars of dark chocolate every day! 

Milk chocolate has even less flavanols. It only has about 15 mg per bar. Most of the cocoa gets replaced by milk and sugar. 

But chocolate isn’t the only food with flavanols. Vegetables, legumes, tea and red wine all have small amounts. Fruits like oranges, berries, pomegranates and apples also contain traces of flavanols.

Did you know? 

Cocoa butter is a fat found in chocolate. It contains oleic acid. That’s the same “good” type of monounsaturated fat found in olive oil.

Studies showing the benefits of flavanols are a little controversial. Companies that make or sell chocolate have funded many of them.

But flavanols could still help prevent memory loss in older people. It could also improve brain function. This is exciting news. Countries around the world are having trouble caring for ageing populations. Researchers also hope to use flavanols to treat neurodegenerative diseases. Those are diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Even without the benefits of flavanols, chocolate is a rich and delicious treat. So don’t forget to add it to your list of yummy study snacks. It might just give your brain the boost it needs for those long study sessions!
 

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating

  • How much chocolate do you normally eat? Does knowing that chocolate contains beneficial flavonols make you want to eat more chocolate? 
  • Which foods do you eat because you know they are good for you? What specific component of that food do you associate with a health benefit? 
  • Has anyone ever called a something you are eating “brain food?” Which foods do you associate with being good for your brain?
     

Connecting and Relating

  • How much chocolate do you normally eat? Does knowing that chocolate contains beneficial flavonols make you want to eat more chocolate? 
  • Which foods do you eat because you know they are good for you? What specific component of that food do you associate with a health benefit? 
  • Has anyone ever called a something you are eating “brain food?” Which foods do you associate with being good for your brain?
     

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • What demographic and economic factors are contributing to an interest in research focusing on neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases?
  • Chocolate is linked to some health consequences, too. Should there be more government control and regulation on selling and promoting the health benefits of chocolate? 
     

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • What demographic and economic factors are contributing to an interest in research focusing on neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases?
  • Chocolate is linked to some health consequences, too. Should there be more government control and regulation on selling and promoting the health benefits of chocolate? 
     

Exploring Concepts

  • Where is the grey matter matter in the brain and what is its function? 
  • Where is white matter located in the brain and what is its function? 
  • Why is oxygen important to the functioning of the grey matter of the brain? 
  • What is flavonol? What types of foods contain flavonols? 
  • How do flavonols act on the brain? 
  • Why might it be difficult to get enough flavanol from chocolate alone? How could you introduce more flavonoids into your diet? 
     

Exploring Concepts

  • Where is the grey matter matter in the brain and what is its function? 
  • Where is white matter located in the brain and what is its function? 
  • Why is oxygen important to the functioning of the grey matter of the brain? 
  • What is flavonol? What types of foods contain flavonols? 
  • How do flavonols act on the brain? 
  • Why might it be difficult to get enough flavanol from chocolate alone? How could you introduce more flavonoids into your diet? 
     

Media Literacy

  • Have you seen any articles about diet and health that mention eating chocolate? Do these articles make any recommendations about eating chocolate? (e.g., what types of chocolate to eat, how much should be consumed, etc.)
  • Have you seen any candy or chocolate companies that appear to be “cashing in” on the health studies about the benefits of eating chocolate? How have they presented  the potential health benefits of chocolate in their advertising and/or promotional literature? 
     

Media Literacy

  • Have you seen any articles about diet and health that mention eating chocolate? Do these articles make any recommendations about eating chocolate? (e.g., what types of chocolate to eat, how much should be consumed, etc.)
  • Have you seen any candy or chocolate companies that appear to be “cashing in” on the health studies about the benefits of eating chocolate? How have they presented  the potential health benefits of chocolate in their advertising and/or promotional literature? 
     

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article can be used to support teaching and learning of Chemistry, Biology, Anatomy and Health related to amines & amides, nervous system, circulatory system and respiratory system. Concepts introduced include brain, chocolate, grey matter, white matter, axons, neurons, myelin sheath, flavonols, dilate, blood vessels and hippocampus. 
  • After reading this article, teachers could have students complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy for the concept of flavonols. Ready-to-use Concept Definition Web reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • To Consolidate learning from the article, teachers could have students consider the positive and negative aspects of eating chocolate using Pros & Cons Organizer learning strategy. Ready-to-use Pros & Cons reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
     

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article can be used to support teaching and learning of Chemistry, Biology, Anatomy and Health related to amines & amides, nervous system, circulatory system and respiratory system. Concepts introduced include brain, chocolate, grey matter, white matter, axons, neurons, myelin sheath, flavonols, dilate, blood vessels and hippocampus. 
  • After reading this article, teachers could have students complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy for the concept of flavonols. Ready-to-use Concept Definition Web reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • To Consolidate learning from the article, teachers could have students consider the positive and negative aspects of eating chocolate using Pros & Cons Organizer learning strategy. Ready-to-use Pros & Cons reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
     

Learn more

25 Facts About Your Grey Matter You Should Know (2017)

Article by Amanda Moritz-Saladino listing interesting facts about the grey matter in your brain. Note that this resource was also used as a reference.

How flawed science helped turn chocolate into a health food (2017)

Article by Julia Belluz for Vox discussing the controversy concerning news hype surrounding studies that focus on chocolate and brain health.

Heart Health Benefits of Chocolate (2012) 

Article from the Cleveland Clinic discussing how some of the compounds found in chocolate can benefit heart health.

References

BrainFacts.org. (2012, April 1). The neuron.

Busch, S. (2018, November 27). What is a flavonoid in chocolate?  SFGate.

Taki,Y., Kinomura, S., Sato, K., Goto, R., Wu, K., Kawashima, R., & Fukudam H. (2011). Correlation between gray/white matter volume and cognition in healthy elderly people Brain & Cognition, 75(2), 170-176. DOI: 10.1016/j.bandc.2010.11.008

Villines, Z. (2015, September 17). Gray matter vs. white matter in the brain. SpinalCord.com.