There may be a use for chocolate beyond being a last-minute gift for your valentine. And as post-Valentine's Day chocolates are being sold off at bargain bin prices, there is no better time to pick up some sweetened cacao—for the good of your brain.
While a clearer picture of chocolate's health benefits is beginning to emerge, the link between cognitive health and the sweet stuff remains unclear. Still, there appears to be some good news on that front as well.
A recent study undertaken by researchers at the University of Maine found that chocolate intake was "positively associated" with cognitive performance.
While the research team emphasized that chocolate has been used since "ancient times" to treat a wide range of health complaints, their research was the first cohort study to find a positive correlation between cognitive ability and long-term chocolate consumption.
Specifically, by looking at the daily diets of 968 participants over several months, researchers were able to find a statistically significant relationship between eating chocolate and a broad range of brain functions.
"Habitual chocolate intake was related to cognitive performance, measured with an extensive battery of neuropsychological tests," the study found. "More frequent chocolate consumption was significantly associated with better performance on the Global Composite score, Visual-Spatial Memory and Organization, Working Memory, Scanning and Tracking, Abstract Reasoning, and the Mini-Mental State Examination."
As far as causal mechanisms are concerned, the University of Maine team suspects that a magical mix of cocoa flavanols and methylxanthines are what is directly impacts mental capacities and protects against cognitive decline. But the team also added that further research would be required to prove this link.
"High levels of flavanols are also found in tea, red wine, and fruits such as grapes and apples," the researchers wrote. "In addition to cocoa flavanols, other psychoactive components of chocolate include the methylxanthines, caffeine and theobromine, both of which have been associated with improving alertness and cognitive function."
Not bad for the fatty, fermented seed we call cacao.