We all love our chocolate, don’t we?
In fact, estimates suggest that more than 7 million tons of chocolate are consumed each year (1) and many of us probably crave chocolate more often than we eat it.
Chocolate is one of those treats that we know we shouldn’t be having but we do anyway.
But, is that actually true?
Here’s a thought for you: Does chocolate make you smarter?
At first glance, that concept might seem like a bit of a stretch. But, actually, it isn’t.
After all, we already know that chocolate (especially dark chocolate) is filled with polyphenols and other compounds that can contribute to health (2).
Besides, wouldn’t it be amazing if chocolate really did make you smarter?
What Does the Research Say?
The relationship between chocolate and cognition is far from clear.
However, the main reason is that studies have been inconsistent.
In particular, some studies have found an association between chocolate and cognition, while others have failed to find such an association.
First of all, there have been a number of studies supporting the connection between chocolate and cognition.
One meta-analysis of research looked at the outcomes from 8 studies (6). Their findings were as follows:
- 3 studies showed that chocolate contributed to improved cognitive function
- 2 showed no changes in behavior but showed changes in the brain
- 2 showed cognitive benefits from supplementation with cocoa polyphenols
These outcomes support the idea that chocolate can increase cognition, especially as the paper focused on randomized studies, rather than observational research.
Despite the positive studies connecting chocolate (or cocoa polyphenols) to cognition, there have also been a number of studies failing to find a connection.
A key example of this was a recent paper, which used data from something called the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study (10).
This was a large observational study that follows participants across time and measures a wide range of different factors.
The nature of the data meant that the authors were mainly testing for long-term associations between chocolate intake and cognitive function – and they failed to find any such associations.
However, at the same time, the study did find relationships between chocolate consumption and cognition in the short term. So, the study was mixed in its results.
One such study did find that cocoa polyphenols were associated with improved mood but not with any changes to cognitive performance (13).
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One Final Study
There is actually one research study that deserves a mention all of its own.
This research study was a little silly and the author specifically looked at whether there was a correlation between chocolate consumption and the amount of Nobel laureates (a person who won a Nobel Prize) per capita (14).
The logic behind this association is the same one that we’re talking about here – which is the idea that chocolate can increase brain function.
The author just took the association one step further, arguing that increased cognition could, in turn, increase the chances of receiving a Nobel Prize. She did actually find an association too although, for whatever reason, Sweden acted as an outlier.
The author argued that this could be because people from Sweden are hypersensitive to the effects of chocolate or that the judges are simply biased (as the judges for Nobel Prizes are based in Sweden).
Now, this research does kind of suggest that chocolate can make you smarter… but not really.
The study was really just a tongue-in-cheek way of looking at the topic.
After all, there are many different things that could contribute to the observed relationship.
For example, countries with higher chocolate consumption probably are also richer on average or have a better quality of life. Those outcomes could contribute to cognition more than chocolate itself.
Regardless, the study is a fun look at the topic and a reminder that we should be careful about any associations that we see.
The Balance of Research
As you can see, there is some evidence for the idea that compounds in chocolate are beneficial along with some evidence that the compounds don’t offer any benefits at all.
So, what’s the answer?
Does chocolate make you smarter?
Realistically, we don’t really know.
There hasn’t been enough research into the topic yet.
Additionally, the research that has been conducted varies considerably in the techniques used, the populations studied and the type of chocolate or cocoa used.
All of that variation makes it even more difficult to work out what relationship is present (if any). To truly find the answer to this question, more research is needed, including larger and more thorough experimental studies.
But, we do know that there are many significant compounds in chocolate, some of which may play a key role in health. For example, the site VegKitchen talks about some of the health benefits of cacao and chocolate. Likewise, Mark's Daily Apple talks about why high cocoa dark chocolate is so important.
Even though the effects haven't been proven yet, the presence of healthy compounds and viable mechanisms suggest the benefits could exist.
It’s also worth noting that any effects of chocolate on cognition are likely to vary considerably depending on the person. So, some types of people might see cognition benefits from chocolate while others may not.
This might be one reason why the results of research have been so inconsistent.
So, does chocolate make you smarter? In theory, chocolate may well do just that.
However, that doesn’t mean your chocolate habit is going to make you healthy.
For one thing, most of the research I mentioned was conducted with dark chocolate, or with cocoa polyphenols.
In some cases, the studies also used chocolate with much higher levels of polyphenols than the typical chocolate you get from the store.
Even if researchers do find that chocolate can make you smarter that outcome probably won't apply to the chocolate you get down at the store.
Still, you never know, right? After all, there are plenty of high quality dark chocolate brands that you can add to your diet.
So, what about you? Are you a big chocolate fan or do you not really care about chocolate?
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