Hot chocolate

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BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — As winter arrives, hot tea and cocoa naturally become popular drink choices with a lot of people. A new study finds drinking cocoa is not just the popular choice, it may also be the “smart” choice as well. Researchers at the University of Birmingham say consuming flavanol-rich products, such as cocoa, increases one’s mental performance.

Flavanols are a group of molecules which occur naturally in fruits and vegetables. They’re a member of the plant flavonoid family and are common in cocoa, grapes, apples, tea, berries, and even wine. While previous studies reveal these molecules can improve brain health, the new report finds they also stimulate brain-blood oxygenation levels. The results show this actually helps people to think faster and perform cognitive challenges more efficiently.

“We used cocoa in our experiment, but flavanols are extremely common in a wide range of fruit and vegetables. By better understanding the cognitive benefits of eating these food groups, as well as the wider cardiovascular benefits, we can offer improved guidance to people about how to make the most of their dietary choices,” lead author Dr. Catarina Rendeiro says in a university release.

Can a cup of cocoa clear your head?

The study examined 18 healthy men between 18 and 40 years-old. Before testing to see how flavanols affect their brains, researchers challenged each participant’s blood circulation by having them breathe in five percent carbon dioxide. That’s roughly 100 times the normal amount in air and produces an effect called hypercapnia in the body.

Using non-invasive near-infrared spectroscopy, a method which uses light to see changes in blood oxygenation levels, researchers tracked how the group responded to the carbon dioxide after drinking flavanols. Each man received these tests twice, before and after having their cocoa.

This procedure was done twice, once with a flavanol-enriched cocoa beverage and again with a regular cocoa drink. The group then completed a series of progressively complex mental tests.

Study authors reveal the participants drinking a flavanol-rich beverage had the highest levels of blood oxygenation after experiencing hypercapnia. Some had levels three times higher than when they consumed a non-flavanol-enriched drink. The volunteers also saw their blood oxygenation rise one minute faster compared to drinking non-enriched cocoa.

More flavanol can also make you sharper

The cognitive exams reveal flavanol-rich cocoa also helps people perform better in mental challenges. The study finds significant improvements in speed and accuracy when subjects have flavanol-enriched drinks over regular cocoa. On average, the group finished the more complex tests 11 percent faster than when drinking non-enriched beverages.

“Our results showed a clear benefit for the participants taking the flavanol-enriched drink – but only when the task became sufficiently complicated,” Dr. Rendeiro explains. “We can link this with our results on improved blood oxygenation – if you’re being challenged more, your brain needs improved blood oxygen levels to manage that challenge. It also further suggests that flavanols might be particularly beneficial during cognitively demanding tasks”.

Researchers note that not every person in the study benefited from extra flavanol in their cocoa. Participants with already high levels of brain oxygenation at the start of the experiment did not see any added performance from enriched cocoa.

“This may indicate that some individuals, that perhaps are already very fit, have little room for further improvement” the researcher from Birmingham’s School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences adds. “The small group of participants who did not react to the flavanol gives us additional evidence to confirm the link between increased brain blood oxygenation and cognitive ability.”

The study appears in the journal Scientific Reports.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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