How do you make yourself feel better in the winter? The cold weather outside probably tempts you into making a hot drink and snuggling under a cozy blanket on your couch just to keep yourself warm.
In a cold and gloomy winter day, nothing can lift up your mood like a cup of hot chocolate. For this year, you’re probably thinking about trying a popular drink: Hot Chocolate Bombs.
The hot chocolate bomb is a ball of chocolate with marshmallows and cocoa mix filled inside its hollow orb. The exciting part actually happens when the chocolate bomb meets hot liquid and ‘explodes’—giving you some visual amusement.
While this satisfying treat might not be the healthiest choice, some compounds in chocolate itself do hold some interesting health benefits.
What’s in Chocolate?
In the world of chocolate lovers, there are three types of chocolate: dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate.
Without doubt, dark chocolate is more bitter, chalky, and less sweet than milk chocolate or white chocolate. However, dark chocolate also retains more components of the cocoa beans than the other types of chocolate.
Some of these components contribute to its unique flavor, whereas many others are beneficial for therapeutic purposes.
Some components found in the cocoa beans are (Katz et al., 2011):
- Polyphenols: Cocoa beans are rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols are micronutrients, commonly found in plants. Particular polyphenol compounds in the bean, flavanols, have many healing properties. The main flavanols in cocoa are epicatechin, cathecin, and procyanidins.
- Alkaloids or methylxanthines: In the bean, the majority of methylxanthines are theobromine, which has an antioxidant activity. Another one is caffeine, which is present in a smaller amount than theobromine. These two compounds are responsible for the unique and bitter taste of chocolate. Although both compounds in a small dose of chocolate are safe for you, they are toxic for your dog.
- Anandamide and phenylethylamine: These components can improve your mood.
- Minerals: The bean contains many essential minerals, such as magnesium, copper, potassium, and iron.
How Does Chocolate affect the brain?
Many studies report the health benefits of chocolate, such as the positive effects of cocoa flavanols on boosting brain activity. Typically, in these studies, researchers required participants to consume cocoa drink or chocolate bars containing different concentrations of flavanols and tested the participants.
Below are some interesting findings from these types of studies:
A previous study showed a high flavanol-containing diet for 3 months reversed memory decline of older participants. From the study, researchers focused on the changes in the dentate gyrus, a region of the brain associated with age-related memory decline (Brickman et al., 2014)
They recruited and randomly assigned older participants to consume either a high-flavanol drink (900 mg of flavanols per serving, with 138 mg of epicatechin) or a low-flavanol drink (10 mg of flavanols per serving, with less than 2 mg epicatechin). Then, they compared the brain imaging and memory task performance of participants before and after the study.
Interestingly, in the high flavanol group, they found statistically significant increase of the cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus and the memory task performance.
2.Reversing the Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Scientists reported flavanol-rich cocoa reversed the negative effects of one night of total sleep loss on healthy individuals (Grassi et al., 2016).
Sleep deprivation causes many health problems, including increased blood pressure and reduced cognitive functions. It reduces alertness, attention, psychomotor responses and cognitive processing.
In this study, after one night of total sleep deprivation following several night of undisturbed sleep, participants consumed either flavonol-rich (510 mg of flavanols with 447 mg epicatechin per serving) or flavanol-poor (88.5 mg of flavanols with 66 mg epicatechin per serving) dark chocolate bars. Then, they had to go through cognitive and medical assessments.
For the cognitive test, women who consumed flavanol-rich chocolate bars performed better than those who consumed flavanol-poor bars.
3. Improving Cognitive Performance
A study by a team of researchers from the University of Birmingham and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed the positive effects of cocoa flavanols on boosting brain performance (Gratton et al. 2020)
The team recruited healthy young adults and tested them in two separate trials: an experiment using flavanol-rich cocoa (150 mg of epicatechin and 35.5 mg catechin) and another one using cocoa with much lower levels of flavanols (less than 4 mg of both epicatechin and catechin).
Two hours after drinking the assigned cocoa drink, the participants breathed air with 5% carbon dioxide, a significantly higher concentration than what’s normally present in the air.
Then, the scientists observed the changes of oxygenation in the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is a brain region responsible for many important functions, including planning, regulating behavior and decision-making. They also evaluated the ability of the participants to finish complex tasks.
In this study, the scientists discovered cocoa flavanols increased blood flow to the brain after carbon dioxide challenge. As a result, it improved the cognitive performance of healthy young adult participants, when they had to finish complex tasks.
According to the scientists, cocoa flavanols might be beneficial to most people for boosting the brain activity. However, flavanols were unable to affect a small number of participants who had high oxygenation responses at baseline. Scientists thought those who are quite healthy might have little room for improvement after consuming flavanols.
Before you buy a large amount of chocolate from the store to get immediate health benefits from it, remember that flavanol concentrations used in these studies were much higher than the concentrations in hot chocolate bombs or chocolate bars.
To put it into perspective, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Database of Flavonoid Content reports that dark chocolate has 108 mg of flavanols per 100 gr, whereas milk chocolate has 15 mg of flavanols per 100 gr (Bhagwat et al., 2014).
In addition, a chocolate bar or a cup of hot chocolate bomb is high in calories, so consuming too much of it can lead to weight gain.
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