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Cocoa’s Cognition Benefits Are In Its Polyphenols

Brown cup with cocoa and marshmallow in the hands of the girl

As a hot drink, cocoa is a popular option in the cooler months.

That’s not really a great surprise.

But, what are the implications of this practice for health?

Is cocoa an unhealthy treat that we should be avoiding, or does it actually have the potential to offer some benefits?

To answer this question, we’re going to have a look at a recent research study and some of the general theory and research that surround cocoa.

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The Potential of Cocoa

Overall, cocoa is a fascinating topic (as well as a tasty drink). After all, we do have a tendency to try and convince ourselves that our treat foods are actually healthy.

But in the case of cocoa, there is some merit to the idea. In particular, cocoa contains a set of compounds known as flavanols.

Flavanols are a form of naturally occurring antioxidant and they are found in many different types of pants (1).In general, the exact flavanol composition will vary from one species of plant to the next.

So, the flavanol composition of the cocoa plant is unique.

There have already been a number of studies suggesting that those flavanols may have positive effects on health, such as helping to improve vascular health (2).

Researchers are also interested in one specific group of flavanols, known as the catechin polyphenols (3).

Man with cocoa seed

You will also sometimes hear the term polyphenol used when discussing the compounds in cocoa.

Polyphenols is a broad term, referring to a specific class of chemical compounds found in plants.

A subclass of this group is the flavonoids and a subclass of that group is the flavanols.

It might seem confusing, but in general, the terms polyphenols, catechin polyphenols, flavonoids and flavanols all refer to groups of compounds found in plants and in cocoa.

Cocoa and Cognition

Currently, most of the research into cocoa and health has been focused on cardiovascular disease.

But, one recent research study (Massee et al., 2015 ) looked at a different area – cocoa and cognition.

This study used a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled design.Essentially, that design means that participants were put into groups at random and that neither the researchers nor the participants knew what group individual participants were in.

Additionally, the design means that a placebo was used to help reduce the chance for error. Overall, this is a very strong experimental design.

In the study, the authors looked at the impact of supplementing with 250 mg of cocoa on young adults.

The authors specifically looked at four key outcomes:

  • Mood
  • Mental fatigue
  • Cognitive performance
  • Cardiovascular functioning

As a result of the study, the authors did find that the cocoa supplemented did improve self-reported levels of mental fatigue.

Warm girl drinking cocoa or coffee

The cocoa did also improve performance on one of the cognitive tasks given as part of the study. But, similar improvement was not seen in other cognitive tasks.

The cognitive task that did show improvement was called Serial Sevens, which was one of two tasks that involve serial subtraction.

Likewise, there were no significant effects in the other areas tested.

The outcomes of the study do support the overall idea that cocoa can help in some areas of cognition, especially in relation to mental fatigue.

Study Limitations

Any research study is going to have some limitations. Understanding these is important for knowing what the study actually implies and what it doesn’t.

In this particular case, the research design was very strong. But, the study did only use 40 participants.

Girl drinking hot chocolate

That isn’t an awful sample size, but it is much smaller than ideal. Additionally, those participants were split into two groups, so each group contained just 20 subjects.

Perhaps the other main challenge with the study is the sample itself.This isn’t really a limitation, but it is significant.

In particular, the study used young adults from Australia, who averaged around 24 years old.

This is particularly interesting because cognition and mental fatigue are both areas that can vary significantly with age (3). As such, it is very likely that the impact of cocoa on cognition might also change with age.

Because of this, the results of the study can only really be applied to young adults.

Further research is needed to know what impacts cocoa may have on cognition and mental fatigue in other age groups.

Biological Mechanisms

The authors of the study highlighted a number of ways that cocoa could have an effect on our cognitive health. For one thing, the human digestive system can absorb the epicatechin components that come from flavanol-rich cocoa.

Likewise, this component may be able to cross the blood brain barrier. The ability to cross that barrier would give cocoa the potential to directly impact cognition (4). 

Animal research on flavanols in some fruits (including berries and grapes) has also shown the potential for flavanol to help improve memory and learning (5,6).

Additionally, cocoa could also have an indirect effect on cognition.

In particular, research has already shown that cocoa can have some impact on the cardiovascular system and there is a strong relationship between cardiovascular health and cognition (7).

Likewise, cocoa itself has been linked to changes in cerebral blood flow (8,9), which also suggests a potential impact on cognition (10).

Research Versus Reality

Hot chocolate in a mug

While cocoa itself may offer health benefits, it isn’t necessarily a health food.

Research into cocoa typically uses products that have a higher-than-normal polyphenol content. For example, in the study above participants were given an active cocoa tablet that contained 250 mg catechin polyphenols.

In general, commercial cocoa (or chocolate) won’t have anywhere near the same polyphenol content – although actual estimates of polyphenol contents are hard to find.

In fact, flavanols create a bitter taste, so processing tends to focus on removing the flavanols. Some research suggests that around 90% of the flavonoids in cocoa are lost during processing (11).

Because of this, we don’t really know what health benefits commercial cocoa offers, if it offers any benefits at all.

Think about commercial cocoa and chocolate for a moment.

Most of the time, manufacturers focus on making their product taste as good as they possibly can. One way of doing this involves processing with alkali (also known as Dutching).

Cocoa powder on black background

That does make the chocolate taste better, but it also leads to a significant decrease in the amount of epicatechin (12).

As such, this form of processing has the potential to decrease or remove any potential health benefits from the cocoa.

Likewise, manufacturers may take other approaches to make their product taste better – like adding in sugar and milk.

Realistically if your chocolate (or cocoa) tastes sweet and yummy, it probably isn’t all that great for you.

Instead, it is the more bitter chocolate and cocoa that is going to be good for your health.

A Possible Exception

With all the emphasis on cocoa, polyphenols and health, some companies have been trying to cash in on the trend.

One example is the CocoaVia range. There are a few products in the range, but I’m going to specifically talk about their packets of cocoa.

The company notes that these packets contain 375 mg of cocoa flavanols.

That’s a fairly high amount, much higher than you would get from traditional cocoa.

However, it is important to note that the measurement considers all flavanols, rather than specific ones.

In general, the product seems to be fairly popular, but there are some complaints about it.

One complaint is simply that it is a bit too bitter.

Honestly, if you’re going to have cocoa or chocolate for health, then you have to get used to it being bitter. There isn’t any way around that.

Another complaint involves the additional ingredients.Beyond the cocoa powder, the product also contains maltodextrin and sunflower lecithin.

I’m not going to go into either of those in depth, but there has been some debate about whether these are actually healthy or not. For example, maltodextrin is an artificial sugar and it has been linked to suppression of some of the good bacteria in your gut (13).

Finally, it’s important to note that at least some of the cocoa that the company uses has been processed with alkali. This is what the company had to say about that practice:

CocoaVia and Dutch Processing

This suggests that only some of the cocoa they use is processed with alkali.

That approach actually makes a lot of sense. It would let them have a high polyphenol level but still produces a product that tastes somewhat decent.

Cocoa Beans

Overall, I have mixed feelings about CocoaVia. This particular product really walks a fine line.

One the one hand, the product is essentially a nutritional supplement, so they need to make sure it performs that role well.

At the same time, people still expect the product to taste decent and to be smooth. Finding a combination of ingredients that meets both sets of criteria is pretty difficult.

Personally, I would prefer it if they used something else rather than maltodextrin, but currently, they don’t. Regardless, this is one of the few products on the market that offers a decent amount of polyphenols.

I do also want to point out that there are other products in the range.

For example, the company does produce capsules, which you can basically use as supplements. These don’t contain maltodextrin and they don’t use alkalized cocoa.After all, there isn’t a need to make the capsules taste good.

So, the capsules are a good alternative for people concerned about what is in the power packets.

Final Thoughts

Research into cocoa, polyphenols and health is still ongoing and there is a lot that we don’t know yet.

Nevertheless, there is a decent amount of evidence supporting the beneficial impacts of the compounds in cocoa. We probably don’t get most of those benefits from commercial cocoa, because it is made to taste good.

But, it’s likely that more products like CocoaVia will spring up over time.

There are also many other foods out there that are high in healthy compounds, including polyphenols and antioxidants. The site Nutrition Advance offers a list of 10 polyphenol- and antioxidant-rich foods, which is a great place to find more information and inspiration. ​

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Have you ever tried CocoaVia (or something similar)? What were your thoughts?

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