A number of scientific studies suggest that some types of cocoa contain substances that could enhance blood flow in the brain and improve brain function.

An international panel of scientists presented their findings yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The session was titled “The Neurobiology of Chocolate: A Mind- Altering Experience?” It was sponsored by Mars Incorporated. The company has been sponsoring research on the nutritional and medical potential of cocoa’s naturally occurring flavanols for the last 15 years.

The scientists suggested that a special cocoa could be made to retain the naturally occurring compounds known as flavanols to help keep the brain healthy and to prevent cognitive decline and dementia.

The Chief Science Officer at Mars Inc, Dr Harold H. Schmitz, said that many laboratories are coming to the same conclusion about flavanol-rich cocoa and its beneficial effects on health. He said the discoveries suggest that products containing “this cocoa could be developed to help maintain healthy brain function throughout several life stages. More research examining the potential of this cocoa in this important area of public health need is clearly warranted.”

The scientists reported several studies where the flow of blood to the brain was observed in different groups of people after consuming a specially prepared cocoa rich in flavanol. The drink was supplied by Mars Inc.

Dr Ian Macdonald of the UK’s Nottingham Medical School looked at changes in regional brain blood flow in participants who drank the flavanol-rich cocoa. He suggested that cocoa flavanols could be used to treate vascular impairments in the brain.

He said the study showed “that acute consumption of this particular flavanol-rich cocoa beverage was associated with increased blood flow to grey matter for 2 to 3 hours.”

Dr Macdonald added that the food components like cocoa flavanols could be used to increase blood flow in the brain and enhance “brain function among older adults or for others in situations where they may be cognitively impaired, such as fatigue or sleep deprivation.”

Another scientist from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, US, Dr Norman K. Hollenberg, presented the results of his work with the Kuna Indians of Panama. The Kuna drink a type of cocoa rich in flavanols on a daily basis and have unusually low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease.

The study is published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences.

Dr Hollenberg and colleagues used death certificates from 2000 to 2004 to compare cause of death between the Kuna who live on the San Blas islands and those who live on mainland Panama. The Kuna who live on mainland Panama do not drink the flavanol-rich cocoa.

There were 77,375 deaths in mainland Panama and 558 on the islands. Only Kuna live on the San Blas islands.

They found that the island-dwelling Kuna had much lower rates of death due to diseases that cause death in much of the world. For instance on mainland Panama the rate of cardiovasculat disease (the leading cause of death) was 83.4 plus or minus 0.70 age-adjusted deaths per 100,000, compared to 9.2 plus or minus 3.1 for the San Blas dwellers.

The rates for cancer on the mainland was 68.4 plus or minus 1.6 compared with 4.4 plus or minus 4.4 on the islands. Similar contrasts were found for diabetes mellitus. Dr Hollenberg and colleagues concluded that the comparatively lower risk of death from these causes among the Kuna in the San Blas “possibly reflects a very high flavanol intake”. But they also stressed that there “are many risk factors and an observational study cannot provide definitive evidence.”

The panel of scientists suggested that these various independent observations of the effect on the blood vessels of drinking flavanol rich foods could be because of the increase in circulating nitric oxide, which helps the circulation by dilating blood vessels and keeping them pliable.

Dr Hollenberg also got healthy volunteers who were over 50 to drink flavanol-rich cocoa. He noticed a “striking blood flow response” emerging over several weeks.

“Since this cocoa preparation is so well tolerated, it raises hope that the brain blood flow response it stimulates can result in maintenance of healthy brain function and cognition, which is an issue that unfortunately plagues many older adults today,” said Dr Hollenberg.

Most commercially available cocoa is low in flavanol because it imparts a bitter taste. That is why a special flavanol-rich version was used in the tests. Mars Inc are starting to market flavanol-rich versions of chocolate bars and cocoa. Other producers are also following suit.

Another scientist, Dr Henriette van Praag of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies reported on a study of the effect of a particular flavanol, Epichatechin, in mice. She said the compound influenced the hippocampus, a gland in the brain that affects memory.

When the flavanol was added to their food, she said the mice demonstrated improved skill in solving and remembering a maze compared to mice who did not consume the compound.

“Does Flavanol Intake Influence Mortality from Nitric Oxide-Dependent Processes? Ischemic Heart Disease, Stroke, Diabetes Mellitus, and Cancer in Panama.”
Vicente Bayard, Fermina Chamorro, Jorge Motta, Norman K. Hollenberg
Int. J. Med. Sci. 2007, 4: 53-58


Chocolate and Health (Mars Inc).

Written by: Catharine Paddock
Writer: Medical News Today