Doctors and parents alike are always concerned with adolescents’ diets, from sugar-laden sodas to nutritionally-deficient fast food. But could a perennial favorite—chocolate—actually be good for kids’ mental health? Some researchers have theorized that chocolate has antidepressant benefits, alleviates anxiety, and improves cognition.
There is growing evidence of some benefits to mood and cognition, but conflicting and sometimes vague data convolutes this picture. As with most foods, our understanding of how chocolate actually works on the mind is constantly evolving.
What’s in Chocolate Anyway?
Many psychoactive ingredients exist in chocolate including the cocoa flavanols (CF) epicatechin and procyanidin; the methylxanthines (MX) caffeine and theobromine (chemical compounds found in the cocoa plant); and N-aceylethanolamine, an analogue to the endogenous cannabinoid anandamide, which may indirectly incur a cannabinoid-like effect of euphoria. (An anandamide is a neurotransmitter that has a role in pain, depression, and memory, among other things) (di Tomaso E et al, Nature 1996;382:677–678). There are limited studies on N-aceylethanolamine and concentrations are generally thought to be too low in chocolate to yield any effect.
Chocolate also provides a unique orosensory experience of texture, sweetness, and general palatability that can create good feelings on its own. In this article, we’ll explore how these characteristics of chocolate can affect cognition and mood.
Chocolate and Cognition, Mood, and Well-Being
Research suggests that chocolate may play a role in improving a variety of aspects of cognition and mood, and individual psychoactive ingredients have been evaluated for their roles in this. Consumption of cocoa flavanols has been found to acutely improve attention, working memory, reaction time, and executive function (Scholey AB et al, J of Psychopharm 2010;24:1505–1514). In one study, calmness and contentedness improved after 30 days of daily consumption of chocolate high in CF (Pase, MP et al, J of Psychopharm 2013;27(5):451–458), and another found that chocolate rich in CF (eg, 85% dark chocolate) reduced anxiety in people with chronic fatigue (Sathyapalan T et al, Nutrition J 2010;9(55):1–5).
Methylxanthines (MX) have been studied with some success as therapies for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other chronic airway diseases because of their purported ability to both relax the heart muscle and stimulate improved breathing (Barr RG et al, BMJ 2003;327:643–648). Cocoa powder, as well as capsules containing the MX found in chocolate, have been found to acutely improve “energetic arousal (feelings of alertness and mental energy)” as well as reaction times and visual information processing (Smit, HJ et al, Psychopharmacology 2004;176:412–419). The same researchers found that high dose caffeine-theobromine capsules, but not cocoa powder, improved “hedonic tone (feelings of well-being),” but these effects were significant only in one of two studies performed.
In a perhaps surprising finding, Mitchell et al found that while caffeine increased contentedness, theobromine decreased self-reported calmness (Mitchell ES et al, Physiol Behav 2011;104:816–822). The mechanism of MX are not fully understood, but may have to do with an enhancement of the intracellular messenger cAMP, which has been associated with memory and learning.
Limitations of the Research
Much of the research on chocolate is limited, with small studies often finding minor results that aren’t duplicated in other research. In addition, some studies have only found responses when psychoactive constituents were ingested at much higher “doses” than would be seen in your average candy bar. Most studies are relatively short, and while epidemiological studies suggest chronic and sub-chronic administration of chocolate—in other words, eating a lot of it, often—may yield cognitive effects, evidence from randomized controlled trials is lacking.
Furthermore, why the benefits of chocolate exist is generally a quandary, particularly when considering effects on mood. Current thinking is that chocolate, at least in its commonly consumed form, does not provide high enough concentrations of psychoactive components to confer benefit, and evidence seems to suggest that any mood-enhancing effects observed are more linked to the ingestion of chocolate itself rather than its psychoactive constituents (Scholey A & Owen L, Nutrition Reviews 2013;71(10):665–681).
This favors the idea that chocolate’s orosensory effect and macronutrient content has a lot to do with its benefits. This is supported by the findings that milk chocolate, but not dark chocolate, reduced anxiety in high anxiety subjects (Francois-Pierre J et al, Nutrients 2012;4:554–567). Another study found that only palatable chocolate improved negative moods, albeit only for a mere three minutes (Macht M et al, Appetite 2007;49:667–674). That this effect is associated with dopamine and the reward pathway is a distinct possibility.
CCPR’s Verdict: Research has shown that depressed people are more likely to eat chocolate (Rose N et al, Arch Intern Med 2010;170(8):699–703), but if it is actually helping them in any way is not clear-cut. Any effects delivered by chocolate seem to be short lived by most accounts and limited data on the effects of chronic administration exist. While psychoactive ingredients are numerous, concentrations are generally low, at least in regard to the potential to affect mood. Thus the taste and experience of actually eating chocolate may account for much of its effect on mood. And while we shouldn’t start “treating” people with chocolate just yet, there seems evidence enough that so long as considerations about patient health are made, chocolate may just have something to offer beyond being a delicious snack.