TL;DR Article Summary
Cacao is a source of antioxidants, specifically flavonoids, that are anti-inflammatory by nature, which benefits your brain. Flavonoids enhance your blood flow which supports neuron health, boosting attention, memory, and learning in the process. Consuming either cacao or cocoa flavonoids, be it through dark chocolate or supplements, can benefit your brain function at any age.
Overview of Cacao and its Memory-Related Claims
Cacao is known for its rich and bold flavor, and many people enjoy its products on a regular basis. What many people don’t know, though, is that cacao is rich in antioxidants and different compounds that are known to benefit our brain function.
Let’s explore its benefits, how it works, and the differences between cocoa and cacao.
What is Cacao?
Cacao – not to be mixed with cocoa – is a tree growing in South American’s tropics. Its famous for its seeds – cacao beans. These beans are the main ingredient in our chocolate treats. But cacao isn’t just for your sweet tooth. Cacao is packed with compounds which have numerous health benefits, including improved memory.
Cacao vs. Cocoa: What’s The Difference?
It’s easy to mix up these two. Both cacao and cocoa come from the same plant—but they’re processed differently. Cacao is made from cold-pressed unroasted beans, which keeps nutrients intact. Cocoa, on the other hand, is the result of roasted beans, having fewer nutrients because of the heat. This is why we’re focusing on cacao specifically for this article.
Cacao and Memory: How Does it Work?
The biggest reason why cacao is beneficial for memory is its active compounds, such as flavonoids. Flavonoids are plant-based antioxidants which are thought to enhance memory and fight inflammation in the brain.
How exactly does cacao work its magic on memory? Without going to deep into the “geek land”, it’s a combination of factors. The flavonoids in cacao support healthy blood flow to the brain, providing it with the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function effectively. At the same time, as we’ve mentioned, molecules in cacao reduce inflammation, which helps your brain cells function optimally and protects them from long-term memory degeneration. 
How Chocolate Benefits Our Heart, and by Extension, Our Brain
It’s not often mentioned, but our heart and brain are closely connected. Good heart health can boost your brain’s performance.
As we’ve seen, cacao helps boost blood flow to the brain. The healthier your blood flow is, the more efficiently the nutrients and oxygen will be delivered to your brain cells. At the very center of this lies the heart, the chief organ regulating all blood flow in your body.
Cacao flavonoids stimulate a molecule called nitric oxide (NO) in our body. NO is sort of a messenger for our blood vessels. When a compound like flavonoid triggers it, NO tells your blood vessels to relax and widen, increasing blood flow and oxygen supply to your body in the process.
Studies from the last 10 years have shown that specific cacao flavonoids, like epicatechin, act on the tiny blood vessels in our brain, enhancing their function and blood flow. The result of this, as you’ll see if you check the hyperlink on the word “epicatechin,” is better memory and other cognitive functions. There are even studies showing cacao manages blood pressure in people with high blood pressure.
Lastly, pairing cacao with exercise may give an extra boost to your heart and brain health. This combination works to enhance the positive effects of cacao on our brain and heart, helping to promote exercise recovery along the way.
Cacao Flavonoids and Your Brain
One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is how cacao helps to boost BDNF. BDNF is a protein in your brain that, when elevated, triggers the repair and growth of new brain cells, especially in regions that are responsible for memory and learning.
Now, some of these findings come from animal studies, so it’s important not to get overexcited and expect miracles. Some studies show promising results, like one that showed that after just 12 weeks of cacao flavanol intake, there was an increase in BDNF, which was associated with improved cognitive function.  But more research is needed.
Anything Else to Consider?
While cacao is healthy, it’s crucial to research the best cacao products when buying. There’s a lot of junk out there that does more harm than good.
Make sure you’re looking for high-quality cacao without added fillers or sugars. Also, moderation is key. Too much cacao every day can lead to nausea, digestive upset, or even jitters.
Conclusion: Enjoy Your Chocolate!
Cacao, specifically its flavonoids, are beneficial for both your heart and brain. By enhancing brain blood flow, supporting neuron health, and enhancing antioxidant activity, cacao indirectly improves the function of your memory and information retention.
You might ask, how much cacao do I need to consume in order to reap all of the benefits mentioned in this article. 25-40g of dark chocolate with at least 75% or more cocoa/cacao is enough.
This means that you can enjoy cacao’s benefits without having to supplement it. All from a bar of delicious dark chocolate.
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- Martín MA, Goya L, de Pascual-Teresa S. Effect of Cocoa and Cocoa Products on Cognitive Performance in Young Adults. Nutrients. 2020 Nov 30;12(12):3691. doi: 10.3390/nu12123691. PMID: 33265948; PMCID: PMC7760676.