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Flavanol-rich chocolate drink helps maths performance

By Lindsey Partos , 07-Apr-2009

Chocolate makers seeking to leverage sales through health-positioned products could find a fresh direction with new research from the UK suggesting cocoa drinks rich in flavanols could help consumers do maths.

Following a small study, researchers at the UK's Northumbria university found the high level of cocoa flavanols anchored in chocolate improved cognitive performance in arithmatic tests.

"The drink rich in cocoa flavanols significantly improved aspects of cognitive performance and levels of fatigue during this mentally demanding task," said Crystal Haskell at the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research centre at Northumbria university.

This latest research builds on a plethora of studies in recent years that have probed the area of cocoa flavanols and their potential positive impact on health, from heart disease to depression.

Flavanols, the building blocks for proanthocyanidins, are a class of flavonoids that exist naturally in cacao. They have attracted increasing attention from the scientific community, and the food industry, due to their potent antioxidant properties and the role they could potentially play in combatting the rising incidence of cardiovascular disease in today's society.

Consumers have become passionate about looking and feeling good with food and drink products neatly slotting into this trend, and new product development from food makers squarely positioned to piggy-back the emerging health and wellness trend.

But in terms of chocolate, the functional chocolate trend is still at the beginning of the curve and only a handful of makers to date, such as Mars' CocaVia and Barry Callebaut's Acticoa, have rolled out products that directly target this area.

However, the double-digit growth seen in the functional category does make for compelling figures and an understandable motivation to drive new product development further down the functional chocolate path. Market analyst Euromonitor reports that in the past four years the functional market has grown on average by 15 per cent a year.

And one in four Western consumers are interested in chocolate with physical or emotional health benefits, according to data gathered on behalf of Barry Callebaut in Belgium, Switzerland, France, Germany, the UK and the US.

UK cocoa drink study uses high levels - 520 mg and 993mg - of cocoa flavonols

“Foods containing high levels of cocoa flavanols, found in chocolate, have been shown to increase cerebral blood flow, and it has also been proven that consumption of plants that have these properties improves performance on mentally demanding tasks. We wanted to discover whether cocoa flavanols produced the same effect,” commented Haskell.

For this study, 30 adults consumed cocoa drinks on different days containing 520 mg of cocoa flavanols, 993 mg of cocoa flavanols or a control drink.

The participants were given a number of mentally demanding tasks to complete, such as counting backwards from 999 in threes.

On the days the participants drank the beverages containing 520mg or 993mg of cocoa flavanols "they performed significantly better at the arithmetic task", report the researchers.

Further, the participants recorded they were also less mentally tired during the task after drinking the cocoa-flavanol rich beverage.

Commenting on the findings Professor David Kennedy from Northumbria university added: “The results presented in the symposium show that medicinal herbal extracts and plant-derived chemical compounds from common foodstuffs can also improve cognitive performance and mood.”

The findings were presented as part of a symposium highlighting the potential of plant-based treatments presented this week at the British Psychological Society annual conference in Brighton, UK.

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