Second Opinion: Unwrap the secret of the Aztecs

The Aztecs used it to enhance strength in their warriors; the Spanish viewed it as a cure-all, and hid it from the rest of Europe for 100 years; the 17th century British physician Dr. William Hughes thought it useful in pregnancy “since it nourishes the embryo and prevents fainting fits”; Thomas Jefferson sang its praises and the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus named it Theobroma Cacao (food of the gods). Yes, I’m referring of course to chocolate.

In its base form, cacao powder is rather bitter, but once sugar and a few other goodies are added, chocolate becomes less a medicinal elixir and more the delicious and rather addictive confectionary we know it as today. What can we say about its purported medicinal properties? We know that cocoa products are rich in flavonoids — antioxidants — that may be beneficial to overall health. Does that translate into tangible benefits? A new paper in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests the answer may be yes!

In his paper Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates, Dr. Franz Messerli reports a rather curious correlation between a country’s chocolate consumption and its ability to produce Nobel laureates. The Swiss, as one would expect, lead the pack in both chocolate consumption (a whopping 12 KG per person per year) and, somewhat less predictably, in Nobel laureates (34 per 10 million population). The Danes aren’t far behind. Canada’s chocolate consumption on the other hand, is a mere 4 KG per person per year and we, lamentably, produce a correspondingly low number of Nobel laureates at only six per 10 million population. Messerli’s paper, it should be noted, was delivered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but there exists an undeniably strong correlation between the two variables.

So what is going on here? Does eating generous quantities of chocolate boost brainpower? There has been some suggestion that flavonoids (also found in green tea, red wine and some fruits and vegetables) improve blood flow and may therefore improve cognitive ability among other health benefits. A 2009 article in the Journal of Nutrition, suggests a strong correlation between brain function, as measured by a battery of cognitive tests, and the intake of flavonoids in the diet. So how does that relate to Nobel laureates? Perhaps smart people just like to eat chocolate, or maybe the Swiss produce Nobel laureates because of some other reason and their enthusiastic chocolate consumption is a coincidence — just something they like to do.

The bottom line is chocolate, particularly dark chocolate (without too much added sugar), along with other flavonoids, can be part of a healthy diet when consumed in moderation. Be wary of the calories though — one ounce of dark chocolate packs about 150 calories, which, for the average person, would require about 1 ½ miles or 30 minutes of walking to burn off. Also, beware of highly sweetened chocolate or candy bars, as they are more likely to enhance your waistline than your brainpower. Even if eating chocolate doesn’t increase your odds of winning a Nobel Prize, it might just put a smile on your face and that is a prize unto itself.

Dr. April Sanders is a physician in Vernon, B.C., with Sanders Medical Vein and Laser.

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