Can Eating Chocolate Make You Smarter?

What effect does chocolate have on your brain? A study released last month shows that eating chocolate may increase our cognitive abilities. 

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
3-minute read
Episode #186

We have heard that eating small amounts of chocolate may be linked to improved cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, lowered risk of stroke, and even increased skin protection against the Sun’s rays. But can it actually make you smarter? A recent study looked at the long term cognitive effects of habitual chocolate eating.

Our consumption of chocolate is thought to date back as far as 2,000 years through a link to the Aztec word xocoatl for a bitter chocolate drink. In fact, chocolate was mostly consumed as a beverage until the invention of the chocolate bar in 1847 by Joseph Fry in England. Cadbury began making chocolate candy in the 1880s and Nestle started producing milk chocolate bars in 1904.

The Latin phrase for cocoa tree, theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods,” may have been meant to describe the taste of chocolate but also may suggest its multitude of health benefits too. A study published last month found that eating chocolate was associated with superior “visual-spatial memory, working memory, scanning and tracking, abstract reasoning, and mini-mental state examinations.”

The researchers surveyed nearly 1,000 New Yorkers over thirty years to track their cognitive abilities as part of the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Survey. In the last five years they began tracking dietary habits as well, which inspired Dr. Georgina Crichton of the Alliance for Research in Exercise, Nutrition and Activity (ARENA) in Australia to contact them about looking for possible links with chocolate intake.

Dr. Crichton’s analysis found that average scores on a variety of cognitive tests were higher for participants who reported eating chocolate at least once per week. These tests included retaining and reciting information, recalling a list of words, remembering where objects were placed, and more logic-based puzzles. The correlation between increased cognitive ability and chocolate intake remained even after controlling for age, sex, education, blood pressure, cardiovascular risk factors, and a few other dietary habits like alcohol intake.

Although further study is needed to understand how exactly moderate chocolate consumption may increase brain function, chocolate researchers have some leads. Cocoa flavanols (compounds found in cocoa that act as antioxidants) are known to reduce some measures of age-related cognitive decline. Chocolate also has methylxanthines, a base naturally found in our bodies, which can increase our ability to concentrate. One hypothesis is that these ingredients in chocolate may increase blood flow to the brain which improves its function.

The researchers behind the study plan to investigate the link between chocolate and cognitive ability further. For example, they did not differentiate their results for those who ate light vs dark chocolate. They also considered anyone who ate chocolate at least once per week to be in the chocolate eaters category but didn’t investigate an increase in cognitive function relative to the amount of chocolate they ate.

So while there is clearly more research to be done, there is growing evidence that chocolate, when consumed in moderation, may make us happier, healthier, and even smarter people. So go ahead and grab that chocolate bar for the sake of your health.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.