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Chocolate boosts brain, visual powers

New research finds more potential health benefits of that delightful substance we call chocolate.

Somebody hand me a chocolate bar.

Researchers at the UK’s University of Reading, in the rare research study that sounds delicious, administered white and dark chocolate to study participants and found that the dark chocolate improved some aspects of visual function and cognitive performance. Their work, published in the June 2011 issue of Physiology and Behavior, just adds to the growing list of potential health benefits of that delightful substance we call chocolate.

Lead author David T. Field and colleagues talked 30 young grownups into eating dark chocolate and then white chocolate (or vice versa) on a regular basis. The poor, beleaguered study participants had to wait a week between each chocolate administration. The researchers chose white chocolate because, as we all know, that’s not really chocolate anyway and it has limited amounts of the key chemicals thought to give real chocolate its foodstuff superpowers. These superpowers, otherwise known as cocoa flavanols (let’s just call them “flava,” and leave it at that), led those 30 adults to improved performance on tests of visual and cognitive performance. White chocolate, with its lack of flava? Not so much.

Life is like a box of chocolates, delicious little flava morsels that may have any number of health benefits. Image Credit: EuroMagic

The cognitive benefits of chocolate – and note that this study used the dark version, undiluted by that delicious addition of dairy that gives milk chocolate its smooth, creamy texture – were already known. The new information here is that consuming dark chocolate enhanced some aspects of visual performance for the study participants. Under the dark chocolate flava influence, they were better able to detect the direction of motion and visual contrasts than when they hadn’t eaten delicious morsels of dark chocolate. Furthermore, the authors added to the growing list of cognitive tasks that people seem to do better when under the influence of that chocolate flava. Um, excuse me a mo’ [reaches for chocolate].

Those flavanols aren’t confined only to chocolate. Perhaps not surprisingly, flavanols – a diverse group of chemicals – occur in a number of foods that also are associated with various features of better health. The flava concentration is pretty high in red wine and black and green teas, grapes, apples, berries, tomatoes, and, of course, chocolate. But not just any chocolate. It seems that the way we process the cocoa bean (also called cacao bean), which if it could boast could boast having among the highest flava concentrations, can affect how much flava stays in.

Chocolate and berries together, a potential flava sensation! Image Credit: norwichnuts

What makes the flava so effective? It may be that chocolate improves visual and cognitive function by way of increasing blood flow to the brain or, suggest the paper authors, the retina. Either way, David T. Field and colleagues from the University of Reading have given us (me) another excuse to reach for yet more chocolate.

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