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CHOCOLATE - THE 'NEWEST' OLD BRAIN FOOD

Little delights improve brain blood flow, cardiovascular health and they have possible anticancer effect

DO you know, that your bar of chocolate has enough energy for you to reach for the next bar.

It is difficult to resist chocolates, whether you are young or old. Why do people become chocoholics?

Chocolates are made from the cocoa beans, but that was not the original name.

The Cacao tree, from which the cacao beans come from, originated from the Central American rain forest. Cacao is actually a Mayan word meaning “God Food”. The ancient civilization of the Mayan worshipped the Cacao tree who believed it to be of divine origin.

Early records suggest that the Mayans brewed an alcoholic drink by roasting and pounding the cacao beans with maize and chilli peppers and served it during special ceremonies in honour of the Mayan God of Fertility.

It was also a drink of the wealthy and religious elite. It was also believed to fight fatigue, a belief that is probably attributable to the theobromine content of cacao beans.

Cocoa Beans As Currency

The Aztecs of central Mexico prized the beans so highly they used them as currency - 100 cacao beans bought a turkey or a slave.
Taxes were paid in cacao beans to Aztec emperors. The Aztec Treasury consisted, not of precious silver or gold, but Cocoa Beans!
The Aztecs too enjoyed cacao as an alcoholic beverage, and like the Mayans, it was used during the rituals and available only to the wealthy.

The Aztecs called this drink Xocolatl. It must have been the Spanish who corrupted cacao as cocoa and xocolatl as chocolate.

Modern Day Chocolate

The Spanish traded and introduced cocoa beans to Europe. A Dutch chemist, Johannes van Houten, found a method to extract the bitter cocoa butter out and made it possible to form the chocolate bar which was more acceptable.

It was the English who started adding sugar and milk to make the taste more palatable as the present day chocolate we enjoy today.

It is said that an Aztec emperor, Montezuma, reputedly drank it 50 times a day from a golden goblet and is quoted as saying, “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 without food."

So it not surprising that present day research has been directed to look into the possibility of the chocolate having an effect to improve brain alertness and reduce fatigue.

Arithmetic Tests Improved

Following a small study, researchers at Britain's Northumbria University found the high level of cocoa flavanols in chocolate improved cognitive performance in arithmetic tests.

“The drink rich in cocoa flavanols significantly improved aspects of cognitive performance and levels of fatigue during this mentally demanding task," said Crystal Haskell at the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research centre at Northumbria University.

The findings were presented as part of a symposium highlighting the potential of plant-based treatments presented early April, this year at the British Psychological Society annual conference in Brighton.

For this study, 30 adults consumed cocoa drinks on different days containing 520mg of cocoa flavanols, 993mg of cocoa flavanols or a control drink.

The participants were given a number of mentally demanding tasks to complete, such as counting backwards from 999 in threes.

On the days the participants drank the beverages containing 520mg or 993mg of cocoa flavanols “they performed significantly better at the arithmetic task”, report the researchers.

The participants recorded they were also less mentally tired during the task after drinking the cocoa-flavanol rich beverage.

Boosting The Brain

According to another panel of scientists, a specially formulated type of cocoa may boost brain function and delay decline as people age.

The scientists presented the results from early studies which tested the effects on the brain of an ingredient found in cocoa, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco two years ago.
They say the results suggest flavanols, a naturally occurring nutrient abundant in fresh cocoa, offer benefits for the brain by improving blood vessel function.

British scientist Ian Macdonald of the University of Nottingham Medical School, conducted a small brain imaging study on young, healthy women to see whether flavanol-rich cocoa helped boost cognitive function during challenging mental tasks.
The research showed that cocoa did increase blood flow to their brains for a two- to three-hour period, and he believes more research might show that increased blood flow could benefit older adults and those who have cognitive impairments, such as fatigue or even mini-strokes.

The researchers say that while the results may have important implications for learning and memory, bingeing on the special chocolates high in calories may not be a good idea as they and may significantly contribute to unwanted weight.

Mechanism

The link between cocoa flavanols and cardiovascular health has been linked to the improving blood flow via increased production of nitric oxide (NO), a molecule used by the endothelium to signal surrounding muscle to relax.

The researchers also noted that Flavonol-rich cocoa contains some caffeine and theobromine and these may somehow contribute to the positive effects seen in the brain.

Cutting Cholesterol

Consumption of the cocoa may also cut cholesterol levels, says a new study from Japan that adds to the ever-growing body of science supporting the potential heart health benefits of chocolate.

The new study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, followed the effects of different levels of supplementation of cocoa powder on cholesterol levels of 160 people with normal cholesterol and slightly elevated cholesterols.

“The results suggest that cocoa powder may contribute to a reduction in LDL or bad cholesterol, an improvement in HDL or good cholesterol, and the suppression of oxidised LDL,” wrote lead author Seigo Baba from Meiji Seika Kaisha Ltd and collaborators from Ochanomizu University.

Consuming Cocoa Regularly

Dr Norman Hollenberg, of Harvard Medical School has studied the effects of cocoa and flavanols on Panama's Kuna Indian population who are heavy consumers of cocoa.

The indigenous population still living on the islands near Panama consume a type of cocoa rich in flavanols daily and experience unusually low rates of hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Early Research In Cancers

Another study by researchers at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Georgetown University Medical Centre looked at what happened when they used a purified preparation of a synthetic chemical found in cocoa beans on a variety of breast cancer cells, compared to treatment on normal breast cells.

They found this chemical was able to slow down tumour growth and even destroy some tumour cells. This could lead to new therapies in cancers.

Easier Cocoa Dosage

Although the researches point to cocoa as a superfood, taking it as in chocolate bars may increase the intake of high amount of calorie rich sugars and unhealthy fats and trans fatty acids.

There is now a tablet made of cocoa extract that may be taken in a simple daily dose that has been shown to increase brain alertness, concentration and memory.

Reference
1. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. Volume 4, Pages 433-440, 2008
2. Journal of Nutrition, June 2007, Volume 137, Pages 1436-1441