Ask the doctors: Recent study suggests dark chocolate can improve mood and memory

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Dear Doctor: I have some dark chocolate every day and my (otherwise kind and loving) husband teases me for believing the news stories that chocolate is good for you. Please tell me that I haven’t fallen for a bunch of quack science!

Dear Doctor: We can certainly understand how the idea that chocolate offers health benefits might spark a bit of skepticism. After all, when we hear about so-called superfoods, it’s foods like kale, fish oil or green tea that tend to top the list. The idea that something as delicious as chocolate might be anything more than an indulgence takes a bit of getting used to. And yet you’re right – a number of studies have linked chocolate with a range of positive outcomes. The results of recent research suggest that chocolate improves memory and brain function, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, can boost immunity and has a positive effect on mood.

But before you unwrap a chocolate bar in celebration, there’s an important caveat. It’s only dark chocolate that confers these positive effects. That is, chocolate with a minimum cacao concentration of 70 percent. That’s because cacao is rich in chemical substances known as flavanols, which have potent antioxidant properties. Studies have shown that flavanols have a positive effect on connections between brain cells, offer protection from toxins and can shield the body from some of the damaging effects of inflammation.

The catch here is that in its pure state, cacao is relentlessly bitter. It’s the sugar and fat that get added during manufacturing that give chocolate its sweetness and silky-smooth feel. For many people, the high levels of cacao needed for chocolate to become potentially beneficial render it unpalatable. If you’re a lover of dark chocolate, though, you’re in luck.

The results of two recent studies regarding dark chocolate, which were presented at the Experimental Biology 2018 annual meeting last April, back up many of the existing health claims about dark chocolate. (They also give you some recent data to use the next time you get teased for your chocolate-loving ways.) Researchers from Loma Linda University examined the brain scans of study participants before and after they ate 48 grams – that’s 1.7 ounces – of dark chocolate. In the post-chocolate scans, they saw increased activity among certain immune cells in functions like T-cell activation, cellular immune response and in genes involved in neural signaling. That translates to beneficial effects on mood, memory, stress levels and inflammation. As with all studies that have a fairly small sample size, the findings here need further investigation to nail down the cause-and-effect of what the researchers saw.

Meanwhile, when you do eat chocolate, be sure to go for 70 percent cacao or higher. Natural chocolate has more flavanols than Dutch process, which uses alkali to neutralize the acid found in cacao. This makes it tastier, but also lowers the flavanol content. And remember that despite all of its potential health benefits, chocolate is also delivering both fat and calories. Be sure to adjust your diet accordingly.

Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu.