Does Cacao Improve Memory? A Layman’s Perspective

Cacao Powder: Does it Boost Memory?

TL;DR Article Summary

Cocoa, especially its flavonoids, appears to benefit our brain. These compounds help increase blood flow to the brain and support neuron health, potentially boosting learning, memory, and attention. Regular intake of cocoa flavonols, even in moderate amounts found in dark chocolate, might contribute to brain function and learning enhancement in both young and older individuals. However, more research is needed to strengthen these findings and understand the exact impact of cocoa on cognitive health.

Overview of Cacao and its Memory-Related Claims

Known for its rich, bold flavor and countless health benefits, cacao is sometimes claimed to help improve memory performance. But what’s the real story? Let’s embark on a journey to separate fact from fiction and discover whether cacao really does hold the key to better memory.

What is Cacao?

Cacao, which should not be confused with cocoa, is a tree native to South America’s tropical regions. It’s famous for its seeds, also known as cacao beans. These beans are the primary ingredient in one of the world’s most loved treats: chocolate. But it’s not just for satisfying your sweet tooth. Cacao is packed with compounds linked to numerous health benefits, including memory enhancement.

Cacao vs. Cocoa: Clearing the Confusion

It’s easy to mix up cacao and cocoa. Both come from the same plant, but they’re processed differently. Cacao is made by cold-pressing unroasted beans, keeping all the nutrients intact. Cocoa, on the other hand, comes from roasted beans and tends to have fewer nutrients because of the heat. For our discussion about memory, we’re focusing on cacao, as it’s the nutrient-rich variant.

Cacao and Memory: How Does it Work?

At the heart of cacao’s potential memory-boosting abilities are its active compounds, including flavonoids. Flavonoids are plant-based nutrients known for their antioxidant properties. In the case of cacao, they are thought to play a significant role in enhancing memory function by supporting brain health.

So, how exactly does cacao work its magic on memory? Without delving into overly technical terms, it’s thought to be a combination of factors. The flavonoids in cacao may help increase blood flow to the brain, providing it with the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function effectively. [1]

Plus, cacao’s antioxidant properties may help protect the brain from damage, promoting overall cognitive health and, consequently, better memory performance.

Contradictory Views and Debates

While cacao’s memory-enhancing effects sound promising, opinions on this subject are far from unanimous. Some believe in cacao’s potential, while others are skeptical, pointing to the lack of concrete evidence. This section takes a balanced look at both sides, without citing specific studies, to present a comprehensive understanding of the topic.

  • Conflicting views might stem from variations in cacao quality, different ways it’s consumed, individual responses, or even inconsistencies in the criteria for measuring memory improvement. Such variables make it challenging to arrive at a definitive answer, contributing to the ongoing debate around cacao’s efficacy in memory enhancement.

How Chocolate Benefits Our Heart, and by Extension, Our Brain

Your heart and brain are closely connected. Good heart health can boost your brain’s performance. Some studies suggest that compounds found in cocoa, called flavonoids, may help improve brain function by improving blood flow in the brain.

Cocoa flavonoids can stimulate a molecule called nitric oxide (NO) in our body. NO acts as a kind of messenger for our blood vessels. When it is triggered, it tells the blood vessels to relax and widen, which can increase blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain.

Research from the last ten years has shown that some cocoa flavonoids, like epicatechin, act directly on the tiny blood vessels in the brain, enhancing their function and blood flow. Other studies show that cocoa can even help manage blood pressure in people with and without high blood pressure.

In addition to this, cocoa is believed to help improve blood flow to the retina, which is the part of your eye that captures the images you see. As the retina sends these images to the brain, having a good blood flow there could improve your visual performance, too.

Lastly, it seems that pairing cocoa with exercise might give an extra boost to your heart and brain health. This combination seems to amplify the positive effects of cocoa on our brain and heart health.

neurons firing signals

Cocoa Flavonoids and Your Brain

Let’s now focus on the brain. Studies in animals have shown that the flavonoids found in cocoa interact with several parts of the brain, especially those involved in learning, memory, and cognitive function. These interactions can have beneficial effects, protecting the brain and even helping improve its function.

These cocoa flavonoids work in a couple of ways. One, they interact with various cell pathways, primarily those associated with learning and memory. Second, they can enhance the production of a brain protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which helps in the growth and survival of neurons, especially in brain regions responsible for learning and memory.

However, we need more human studies to fully understand the benefits of cocoa flavonoids on the brain and cognition. Some studies show promising results, like one that showed that after just 12 weeks of cocoa flavanol intake, there was an increase in BDNF, which was associated with improved cognitive function. [1] But more research is needed.

Precautions and Considerations

While enjoying cacao, it’s essential to note that not all products are created equal. Look for high-quality cacao without added sugars and fillers. Additionally, moderation is key, as excessive cacao might lead to unwanted side effects like jitteriness or digestive discomfort.

Conclusion: Enjoy Your Chocolate

In conclusion, cocoa, particularly its flavonoids, seem to have potential benefits for both our heart and brain health. They might enhance blood flow in the brain, support neuron health, and even boost our cognitive abilities like learning, memory, and attention.

The good news is you don’t need to consume a massive amount of cocoa to reap these benefits. Most studies suggest a dose ranging from less than 100mg to around 500mg of flavanols, which is roughly the amount you can find in a high-quality dark chocolate bar.

However, we shouldn’t forget that these are early findings and more research is needed. Most studies so far have focused on older individuals or those with chronic diseases. But initial research on young, healthy adults and children also suggests that cocoa flavanols could boost brain function and learning.

All in all, enjoying a piece of high-quality dark chocolate not only tastes good, but might just be beneficial for your brain and heart health too!

Further Reading:


  1. 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.

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