Since ancient times, cacao has been believed to be one of nature’s medicines with various health benefits. Aztec texts from the 1500s tell us that their Emperor kept a botanical garden specifically for growing and experimenting with different plants in hopes to discover their unique medicinal abilities. Cacao was one of their successful trials, as they eventually came to understand its ability to help treat stomach problems, cure infections, end fevers, and help control coughing.1 Most of these cures and treatments required combining cacao with another substance, but this would prove to be only the beginning of exploring the medical potential of pure cacao and eventually chocolate in its many forms that we enjoy today. The investigation of chocolate’s medicinal value continued as the Spanish came into contact with the pleasing food and proceeded to spread it across Europe. However, only recently has the depth and scientifically sound research of chocolate’s effects on the human body began to unfold in its true immensity. In 2013, a composition of work from 89 contributing experts was produced titled Chocolate in Health and Nutrition, measuring 542 pages in length and consisting of 40 separate chapters thoroughly exploring a broad spectrum of information on chocolate.2 The scale of this collaborative piece provides some perspective on the complexity of chocolate and its effects, and people’s magnificent efforts to explore and understand them. Perhaps one of the most exciting recent developments in this research is understanding cacao’s effect on the human nervous system. It has long been known that consuming chocolate can affect our mood, but in the last ten years it has been revealed that chocolate can actually provide a temporary boost to cognitive function, thus leading to extensive studies in attempts to know how and why this happens, and how it can be applied medicinally.3 I will provide detailed insight to this recently discovered effect of chocolate consumption on the human brain, as well as explore its potential medicinal applications as a unique benefit of cacao, and finally consider the consequences that this discovery can have on the contemporary state of the cacao-chocolate industry.
First, we need to understand how eating chocolate increases our cognitive function. Ian Macdonald, professor of metabolic physiology at The University of Nottingham, led a study in which he found that consuming a chocolate drink increased blood flow to specific areas of the participant’s brain for up to three hours. The chocolate drink was “rich in flavanols — a key ingredient of dark chocolate,” which he predicted to produce such a response.4 The boost in blood flow to specific areas of the brain is what allowed participants in the study to display increased cognitive performance in specific tasks through improved alertness. Macdonald was also able to monitor brain activity in the participants by using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), through which he saw an increase of activity after the individuals consumed the cocoa. He attributes this to a response to the flavanols in which cerebral blood vessels dilate and allow more blood to reach the vital areas of the brain, improving oxygen delivery and therefore increasing cognitive function.4 One limitation to these findings comes from the fact that the level of cacao flavanol that the participants consumed during the study is significantly higher than that normally found in chocolate products. However, this doesn’t negate the significance of the findings, it simply means that you won’t experience such strong effects by having a bite of your favorite chocolate bar, at least not yet. Such doses of cacao flavanols and their affects may be explored as a possibility within commercially produced consumer products or even in purely medicinal forms in the near future, but this will be discussed in more detail later in the essay. For now, we know that even small doses of cacao flavanols, such as those found in a typical chocolate product, improved cognitive performance in young adults during a separate study. The participants experienced enhanced spatial memory and reaction times.5 These new findings leave us with seemingly countless potential medicinal applications.
We’ve seen that cacao flavanols have been scientifically proven to sharpen the mind in a temporary boost of cognitive abilities, scalable with greater effects at higher doses. But how can we use this knowledge in medicinal purpose to help people? The most obvious opportunity is in helping to treat fatigue. The idea of using chocolate to battle fatigue is far from new, as it has long been known that chocolate has small amounts of caffeine in it. Aztec Emperor Montezuma II is quoted acknowledging these effects of cocoa: “…the divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day…”.11 It has now been scientifically proven that something other than caffeine within chocolate is contributing to the boost it gives you, and perhaps these flavanols could be isolated and ingested specifically for the improved cognitive function they provide. Researchers have already found that consistent consumption of chocolate that is rich in flavanols “significantly improved symptoms of chronic fatigue after 8 weeks.”2 This means that cocoa flavanols could theoretically be used to help combat the effects of increased fatigue due to aging, as well as within the general population to help battle sleep deprivation. Another potential medicinal use could be to create a chocolate based drink that is rich in the relevant flavanols (and not caffeine) as an alternate to coffee. This could help people avoid some of the negative effects that coffee can have when consumed consistently or in high quantities, as many people will need a substitute for their ritualistic boost from a hot drink.6
Now imagine your favorite chocolate product, but with the understanding that consuming it will not only bring you the delicious pleasure it normally does, but also help you perform better on the final exam you’re about to take, respond better to questions during your job interview, or compete better in your chess tournament. What if the cognitive boosts from potential new flavanol-rich chocolate based products or medicines could help treat attention deficit disorders? The Centers for Disease Control reports that as of 2011, rates had risen to 11% of children in the United States being diagnosed and treated for ADHD.7 Typical medications for ADHD have many known and consistently prevalent negative side affects, some of which are shown in the image below alongside the side effects of caffeine.
If chocolate-based products can be created and brought to market that offer safe alternatives to these fatigue or cognitive function related medicines and remedies, the already massive chocolate industry would take on a vast new amount of demand. The study by professor Macdonald mentioned earlier in the essay also proved that the temporary cognitive function enhancement from cacao flavanols can be achieved without any effect on the subject’s heat rate after ingestion.4 This is an immediate improvement on the dangers of common ADHD medications as well as high doses of caffeine. Such medicinal chocolate-based products could also be aimed at safe recreational use by consumers such as college students who currently look to illicitly abuse prescription stimulants. A 2006 study found that over 8% of college students were illicitly using prescription stimulants, such as ADHD medications, as mental performance enhancers for assignment completion, studying, or exam taking.9 It is feasible that before long, food scientists will be able to develop chocolate-based products that can safely and legally fill that role for students looking for a cognitive boost during stressful deadlines or tests. The prospective applications for such cognitive improvements through consuming chocolate products are abundant. The following statement from Chocolate in Health and Nutrition elucidates the substantiality of the research and findings on this subject, and offers insight to the many ways it could be utilized:
“Overall, five… studies that examined the effects of cocoa- and chocolate-related products in humans found that the products were associated with significant enhancement/improvement of certain aspects of individuals’ neurocognitive functioning, and, in particular, on tasks assessing simple reaction time, rapid visual information processing, energetic arousal, episodic memory, cognitive processing speed and sequential abilities, perceptual speed, global cognition, access to semantic memory, Serial Threes subtractions, visual contrast sensitivity, detection of motion direction, visual spatial working memory, choice reaction time, and mental fatigue.”2
However, chocolate and its ability for cognitive function enhancement don’t have to be limited to medicinal substitutes for existing cures. As shown below, coffee is a multibillion dollar global industry, and happens to be a common pairing with chocolate. The two products can be marketed together as a way to provide an ultimate mental boost, in a variety of new coffee beverages mixed with flavanol rich chocolate.
Before hastily racing to expand the chocolate industry’s scope into a new line of products marketed specifically for cognitive enhancement, we must first consider the possibility that such products may come with their own health risks for consumers. There are several potential issues with the possibility of this endeavor in concerns to consumer health risks. Firstly, it remains unclear whether or not the high concentration of the necessary flavanols needed for a noticeable cognitive enhancement come with their own set of unrealized side effects. Experts collaborating to produce Chocolate in Health and Nutrition agreed that further animal and human testing needs to be conducted in order to determine the lowest level of cacao flavanol consumption that can be proven both effective and safe.2 Moreover, it is reasonable to expect that the most successful products marketed with this feature as a highlight will likely be many of the same chocolate products that are top sellers today, simply with supplemented amounts of the necessary flavanols for a temporary cognitive boost. This added benefit would likely increase the addictiveness of such products significantly. We already know that chocolate products are one of the many culprits contributing to the prevalence of obesity and diabetes among Americans due to the often high amounts of added sugar. This could be a major concern and potentially lead to pushback on such products from certain groups.
Perhaps the use of chocolate for the medicinal purpose of a temporary cognitive boost could instead be limited to a very niche product of high purity cacao, and marketed to true chocolate lovers looking for a bundle of health benefits. This video from Fox News13 acknowledges some of the many other health benefits attributed to cacao, including cardiovascular health benefits proven in a study of the Kuna people of Panama led by Harvard Medical School’s Norman Hollenberg .14 If appropriate measures are taken to ensure safe consumable chocolate products are offered that can provide a noticeable temporary cognitive function enhancement, the chocolate industry may have found a massive untapped market for itself. Several studies have scientifically proven that chocolate, an already tremendously popular food item, indeed has the ability to provide us with a brief mental sharpening. Time will tell if it is possible to supplement the relevant compounds in a way that makes them noticeably affective without negatively affecting the taste or safety of chocolate products.
1 Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007 . The True History of Chocolate.
2 Ronald Watson et al. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Humana Press, 2013. Springer. Web. 05 May 2017.
3 Katz DL, Doughty K, Ali A. Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2011; 15
4 Macdonald, Ian. Boosting Brain Power – With Chocolate. Am Assoc Adv Sci. 2007. Web. 05 May 2017.
5 Field DT, Williams CM, Butler LT. Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in an acute improvement in visual and cognitive functions. Physiol Behav. 2011; 103
6 Maughan, R. J., and J. Griffin. “Caffeine Ingestion and Fluid Balance: A Review.” Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics : The Official Journal of the British Dietetic Association. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2003. Web. 05 May 2017.
7 “Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Feb. 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.
8 Image –
9 Teter, Christian J., Sean Esteban McCabe, Kristy LaGrange, James A. Cranford, and Carol J. Boyd. Illicit Use of Specific Prescription Stimulants Among College Students: Prevalence, Motives, and Routes of Administration. Pharmacotherapy: The Journal of Human Pharmacology and Drug Therapy. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 06 Jan. 2012. Web. 05 May 2017.
10 Image – http://dougbelshaw.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/coffee_economy.png
11 Dillinger TL, Barriga P, Escarcega S, Jimenez M, Salazar Lowe D, Grivetti LE. Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. J Nutr. 2000; 130
12 Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens, Maddie Oatman, Maya Dusenbery, Cristin Kearns Couzens, Wes Enzinna, Justin Elliott, and Daniel Setiawan. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” Mother Jones. N.p., Nov.-Dec. 2012. Web. 05 May 2017.
14 Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. University of California Press Journals, 01 Feb. 2012. Web. 06 May 2017.