Dark Chocolate Might Help You Focus, So Maybe It's Time To Swap Out Your Afternoon Coffee For A Square Of The Good Stuff

We've been hearing a ton about the health benefits of chocolate recently — and now it looks like we've got something else to add to the list: Dark chocolate might help you focus better, according to new research. Chocolate lovers, rejoice!

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Northern Arizona University and published in the journal NeuroRegulation, took a look at how chocolate affects our cognitive functioning. Although an awful lot of studies have examined what kinds of effects chocolate has on our bodies, this one, posits Medical Daily, might be the first one to focus on what it does to our brains. The good news? There's now evidence that dark chocolate might have a positive impact on our attention span — and the researchers found a way to make it heart healthy, too.

Of course, as cool as this all sounds, there is one thing we have to bear mind: The study was funded by the Hershey Company. As such, it's possible that there could be a little bit of a bias working in chocolate's favor here. I'm not saying that there definitely is a bias… but I think it's still worth noting where the money for the research came from. Furthermore, it also means that the study likely wasn't just conducted for the sheer joy of science — it's kind of like marketing research, too, insofar as it answers the question, "How can we make our product more appealing?" So, y'know… do with all that what you will.

In any event, though, the study is still pretty neat. Here's the lowdown:

The Experiment:

The researchers gave their pool of 122 participants, all between the ages of 18 and 25 years old, one of six different options to consume: Chocolate with high cacao content (60 percent), chocolate with low cacao content (zero percent, although I'm not totally sure chocolate with no cacao can really still be considered chocolate), high cacao chocolate with added L-theanine (an amino acid found in green tea that serves as a relaxant), high sugar water, low sugar water, or just plain ol' water. The serving size of each option was determined based on each participant's weight; furthermore, the options were packaged in such a way that the participants couldn't see what they were consuming. The participants' electroencephalograph EEG results, which measure brain activity, were recorded both before and after a 60-minute digestion period; so were their blood pressure and mood.

The Results:

Admittedly, six conditions to consider is kind of a lot — but of particular interest were the results for two of them in comparison with the rest. First, the group who ate the chocolate with 60 percent cacao content yielded EEG results that showed their brains as being more alert than those who didn't eat dark chocolate. Their blood pressure also rose, though, which is probably to be expected; chocolate, after all, is a stimulant.

But that's where the second intriguing result comes in: The results for those who consumed the dark chocolate that also contained L-theanine had all the benefits seen in the group who ate straight dark chocolate, but their blood pressure dropped instead of rose. Said lead researcher Larry Stevens in a press release, “L-theanine is a really fascinating product that lowers blood pressure and produces what we call alpha waves in the brain that are very calm and peaceful. We thought that if chocolate acutely elevates blood pressure, and L-theanine lowers blood pressure, then maybe the L-theanine would counteract the short-term hyperintensive effects of chocolate.” It looks like they were right.

So… What Now?

Given that the study was funded by Hershey, it's perhaps not surprising that the goal here will ultimately be to create a new product for the market. “It's remarkable,” said Stevens. “The potential here is for a heart healthy chocolate confection that contains a high level of cacao with L-theanine that is good for your heart, lowers blood pressure, and helps you pay attention.” If there's one thing humans as a group love, it's hearing that something we consider to be a treat is actually “good for us.” We're still going to have to take into account the fact that “heart healthy” doesn't mean “nutritious dietary staple” — so, y'know, don't go nuts with it or anything — but maybe a square of this new dark chocolate recipe in the afternoon might work as a replacement for your midday coffee break.

I wonder, too, what might happen if the L-theanine chocolate recipe met up with the healthier chocolate recipe we heard about last month — the one that involves “pulp preconditioning” as a way to help the cacao beans retain more of their health benefits even after being roasted. Dark chocolate that's high in antioxidants, helps you focus, and calms you down? That's a treat I'd feel a little less guilty eating. Again, we still have to make sure we keep thinking of it as a treat — but if we're going to indulge in something sweet, we may as well try to give it some healthful bonuses too, right?

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