New Studies Suggest That Dark Chocolate Could Reduce Stress, Improve Memory

For most of us, chocolate is the ultimate guilty pleasure — we know it has the potential of making us pack on the pounds, but it's also too good to resist. While many still warn against its possible health risks, there have been scientific and medical papers suggesting the opposite, that chocolate isn't as bad for our health as we might think. The latest such research centers on dark chocolate, and how some varieties could reduce stress and improve our memory, among other benefits.

According to Science Daily, a pair of studies led by Loma Linda University psychoneuroimmunology and food science researcher Dr. Lee Berk looked at the potential health benefits of dark chocolate, specifically varieties that have a 70 percent or higher concentration of cacao, and a 30 percent or lower concentration of organic cane sugar. Both studies marked the first time that such benefits were linked to the consumption of cacao, as high concentrations in dark chocolate were associated with improvements to cardiovascular, cognitive, and endocrine health.

In a statement, Berk stressed that previous studies had focused mainly on how dark chocolate's neurological influence based on its sugar content, with more sugar traditionally associated with a more positive mood. He added that the new research focused instead on high cacao concentrations in regular-sized chocolate bars over varying periods of time, and yielded "encouraging" findings.

"These studies show us that the higher the concentration of cacao, the more positive the impact on cognition, memory, mood, immunity and other beneficial effects," said Berk.

Breaking down the methodologies behind both studies, Medical Daily wrote that the first study looked at how the consumption of dark chocolate with 70 percent cacao concentration could influence gene expression in humans. This study suggested that such types of dark chocolate reduces stress and strengthens the immune system by up-regulating the pathways used in T-cell activation and the genes connected to neural signaling and sensory perception.

The second study, on the other hand, focused mainly on how dark chocolate with high cacao levels could benefit cognitive functions, such as helping improve our memory and strengthening our ability to learn new things. This was proven when the researchers studied the electroencephalography (EEG) response in people who consumed 48-gram servings of dark chocolate with 70 percent cacao.

Although the research, which was presented at this week's Experimental Biology annual meeting in San Diego, might sound encouraging for dark chocolate lovers who want to reduce their stress levels and become sharper in their day-to-day lives, Berk cautioned that more research may be needed to better understand the "cause-and-effect relationship" between high concentrations of cacao and the aforementioned health benefits.

Likewise, Harvard Chan School instructor Dr. Elizabeth Mostofsky, who wasn't involved in the studies, cautioned that eating large quantities of chocolate is still not advisable, due to the high fat and sugar content found in these products. She added, however, that it "may be a healthy choice" to consume chocolate with high cocoa content in moderation.