A research team based at Italy’s University of L’Aquila have published a new study that says cocoa beans contain high concentrations of flavanols, which are naturally-occurring compounds that can protect our brains.

The team, whose findings were published in Frontiers in Nutrition, reviewed current scientific literature in the hopes of finding out if the sustained concentrations of cocoa flavanols found in regular chocolate-eaters had any effect on the brain. What the team found was a breadth of trials in which participants that regularly consumed chocolate processed visual information better and had improved “working memories.”

Furthermore, women who consumed cocoa after a sleepless night saw a reversal of negative side effects that come from sleep deprivation, such as compromised task performance. This could be great for those who work particularly stressful jobs that compromise one’s sleep as well as those with recurring sleep issues.

Diets such as the Mediterranean diet encourage the consumption of chocolate in moderation, and this study further supports such suggestions.

However, the results should be taken with a grain of salt: the positive effects from cocoa flavanols differed based on the variety of the mental tests. For young adults who were in good health, they needed a very intense cognition test to expose cocoa’s immediate benefits.

Most research on this subject to date generally involves elderly populations who have consumed cocoa flavanols from anywhere between five days and three months. For this population, daily consumption of cocoa flavanols had the most positive profound effect on their cognition, improving their verbal fluency, processing speed, and attention span.

The benefits were most noticeable in subjects whose cognitive abilities had minor damage or whose memories had previously begun to decline.

In the paper, lead authors Michele Ferrara and Valentina Socci wrote, “The cocoa flavanols have beneficial effects for cardiovascular health and can increase cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. This structure is particularly affected by aging and therefore the potential source of age-related memory decline in humans.”

So, have the scientists themselves started indulging in some daily chocolate?

“Dark chocolate is a rich source of flavanols,” they explained. “So we always eat some dark chocolate. Every day.” But don’t forget that even dark chocolate can have high caloric value, especially when mixed with common additives such as milk and sugar.

So in keeping with the Mediterranean diet’s suggestions for consuming other delicious products such as wine and olive oil: make sure to do so in moderation.

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