Cocoa flavanols may fend off age-related cognitive dysfunction, says Mars-backed study

By Annie Harrison-Dunn contact

- Last updated on GMT

Cocoa flavanols may improve elderly cognitive function: Mars study

Related tags: Cognition

A Mars-backed study has provided further evidence that high cocoa flavanol consumption may help improve cognitive function, possibly through changes to insulin sensitivity.

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​looked at the impact of daily consumption of a drink containing either a high (993mg), intermediate (520mg) or low (48mg) flavanol count for 90 elderly participants for a period of eight weeks.

The researchers from the Italian University of L'Aquila assessed cognitive function with a series of tests including a mini-mental state examination (MMSE), two trail-making tests and a verbal fluency test (VFT) at the beginning and end of the study. Alongside these cognitive tests, they measured insulin resistance, blood pressure and lipid peroxidation.

Although uncertainties around the relationship between insulin resistance, flavanols and cognitive functioning remain, this paper was said to provide further insights about possible pathways that could underlie the observed cognitive effects.

Results are in

The time taken to complete the two trial-making tests was significantly different when compared to the low dose group with those given the high and intermediate drink.

Improvements in verbal fluency test results across all three groups of men and women aged 61-85 years with no evidence of cognitive dysfunction were recorded, but this was most significant for the high and intermediate groups. There were no differences detected for the mini-mental state examination however. 

Significant improvements in insulin resistance, blood pressure and lipid peroxidation for the high and intermediate groups were recorded compared to the low content group. 

Professor Claudio Ferri, one of the authors behind this study and others in the field, told us the findings had been in line with their expectations given past findings in the area of flavanols, insulin sensitivity and cognitive health. 

“This is the second time we have observed this correlation. A correlation is not absolute proof but a strong, strong suggestion. For example: ‘When I am tall it is likely my body weight will be bigger.’” 

Nearly five times more than health claim   

Asked why they had chosen to use flavanol levels well over the 200mg amount featured in the approved normal blood flow health claim​ won by Barry Callebaut in 2013 – for which some of Ferri’s past research

cocoa pod beans powder

was used – he said this was a completely different matter and ultimately just a question of study design. 

The drink product used in this particular trial was produced using Mars’ patented Cocoapro process, but Professor Ferri said both this and Barry Callebaut’s flavanol-preserving ACTICOA processing method were, “excellent”​. 

‘Safe’ cocoa

Professor Ferri iterated though that these findings did not apply to chocolate, but “safe cocoa”​ which had been specially processed to preserve flavanol counts. “This is not chocolate at all. It must be prepared by a manufacturer.”

He called flavanols secured through Mars’ process a kind of “neutraceutical agent”​, since the firm both preserved the naturally occurring polyphenols and enriched them with more.

This study was part of a two-part research project, the first of which, published in the journal Hypertension​ in 2012, suggested cognitive and cardiometabolic benefits of habitual cocoa flavanol consumption in older adults who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. 

Unique to cocoa flavanols?

He said while it was possible to improve insulin sensitivity with lifestyle changes and simple dietary measures like eating more vegetables, the means in which this impacted our body was not comparable to cocoa flavanols since in the case of vegetable consumption this happened through insoluble fibres not fat or flavanol content.

Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

Published online ahead of print,  doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.092189

“Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control, and metabolic profile in elderly subjects: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study--a randomized controlled trial”

Authors: D. Mastroiacovo, C. Kwik-Uribe, D. avide Grassi, Stefano Necozione, Angelo Raffaele, Luana Pistacchio, Roberta Righetti, Raffaella Bocale, Maria Carmela Lechiara, Carmine Marini, Claudio Ferri, and Giovambattista Desideri.

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