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Counting on Chocolate

If there is no real significant link between cocoa and love, then what can the chocolatey goodness actually do for you?

Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone and you are probably fed up with all the stories about chocolate that the media feels obliged to trot out at this time every year. There are the usual stories about the Aztec king Montezuma enhancing his libido with chocolate and about phenylethylamine in chocolate inducing people to fall in love. Actually, the only thing chocolate makes people fall in love with is chocolate!

So, let’s not talk about the silliness of chocolates inducing love. That’s romanticized nonsense. But according to researchers at Northumbria Universty in the U.K., chocolates may indeed make you fall in love, with of all things, mathematics. The claim is that flavanols, chemicals that occur naturally in chocolate, can improve performance on mental tasks, especially when it comes to math. The study follows in the footsteps of others showing that a flavanol-rich chocolate, providing 900 mg of cocoa flavanols daily, produces significant improvements in blood flow in the brain, particularly in the middle cerebral artery. Improved blood flow could conceivably affect brain function, which is just what the Northumbria researchers decided to test. 

Thirty adult subjects were recruited for the study. On different days they were asked to consume cocoa drinks containing about 500 mg flavanols, 1000 mg flavanols or a control beverage that tasted the same but had no flavanol content. The participants were then given a number of mentally demanding tasks to complete, such as counting backwards from 999 in threes. On the days when they drank the beverages containing 500 mg 1000 mg of cocoa flavanols, the participants performed significantly better at the arithmetic task. They also claimed to be less mentally tired during the task after drinking the flavanol rich cocoa. But if you ever have the need to count backwards by threes, don’t count on regular cocoa to help, you need the flavanol enriched stuff. 

What else can cocoa do for you? Maybe help you relax. Many an old wife has counselled agitated people to calm down by having a nice cup of cocoa. There may actually be some scientific evidence for this if you go by the work of researchers at the Nestle Research Center in Switzerland. It isn’t what one would call a landmark study, in fact scientifically speaking the methodology is pretty flawed. Still, it does provide some points of interest. I suspect it wasn’t hard to recruit subjects for the study, since all they had to do was eat twenty grams of dark chocolate twice a day for two weeks and donate urine and blood samples halfway through, and then at the end of the fourteen day period. 

The participants were divided into “high anxiety” and “low anxiety” groups based on psychological questionnaires. The idea was to determine if levels of anxiety could be affected by chocolate consumption, and if so, would more anxious people be affected differently? Blood and urine samples were tested for cortisol as well as for catecholamines, compounds that are markers of stress levels. Consumption of chocolate reduced levels of these chemicals in the high anxiety group, leading the researchers to conclude that they have found “strong evidence that a daily consumption of 40g of dark chocolate during a period of two weeks is sufficient to modify the metabolism of free living and healthy human subjects”. These changes, they say, seen after only two weeks, had “potential long-term consequences on human health.” Well, that’s a bit of an overstatement. They didn’t carry out any psychological tests to see if the subjects anxiety was really reduced, they just relied on the chemical markers. Also a study of thirty subjects is too small, and a period of two weeks is too short for such a speculation. A couple of squares of dark chocolate is a far better dessert than chocolate cake but don’t count on it providing any relief from the stress caused by reading all those silly articles about chocolate being the food of love.


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