In a study conducted at Columbia University Medical Center, healthy people, ages 50 to 69, who drank a mixture high in antioxidants called cocoa flavanols for 3 months performed better on a memory test than people who drank a low-flavanol mixture.
Dr. Scott A. Small, the study’s senior author said on average the improvements of high-flavanol drinkers meant they performed like people 2 to 3 decades younger on the study’s memory task.
“An exciting result,” said Craig Stark, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the study. “It’s an initial study, and I sort of view this as the opening salvo.” He added, “And look, it’s chocolate. Who’s going to complain about chocolate?”
The findings support other research connecting flavanols, especially epicatechin, to improved blood circulation, heart health and memory in mice and humans. Experts, however, say the new study, although involving a small number of participants and partly funded by Mars Inc., the chocolate company, goes further and was a well-controlled, randomized trial led by experienced researchers.
To consume the high-flavanol group’s daily dose of epicatechin, 138 milligrams, however would take a lot of Milky Way or Snickers bars. In fact, it would take about 7 average-sized bars. Milk chocolate has most epicatechin processed out of it.
“You would have to eat a large amount of chocolate,” along with its fat and calories, said Hagen Schroeter, director of fundamental health and nutrition research for Mars, which funds many flavanol studies and approached Dr. Small for this study. (“I nearly threw them out,” said Dr. Small, who added that he later concluded that the company employed serious scientists who would not bias the research.)
“Candy bars don’t even have a lot of chocolate in them,” Dr. Schroeter said. And “most chocolate uses a process called dutching and alkalization. That’s like poison for flavanol.”
Mars already sells a supplement, CocoaVia, which it says promotes healthy circulation, including for the heart and brain. It contains 20 to 25 milligrams of epicatechin per packet of powder or capsule serving. Epicatechin is also in foods like tea and apples.
More research is planned. One theory is that flavanols improve brain blood flow; another, favored by Dr. Small, is that they cause dendrites, message-receiving branches of neurons, to grow.
“Everybody’s cautious about antioxidants, but this is a horse of a different color, a really elegant study,” said Dr. Kenneth S. Kosik, a neuroscientist at the University of Calfornia, Santa Barbara.