Chocolate improves your memory, but only in insane quantities

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“Challenge accepted”, right?

Sadly, it’s not quite that easy. The verdict come from a study published in Nature Neuroscience in November 2014, which saw volunteers ingest increased quantities of flavanols; chemicals which naturally occur in cocoa, red wine and teas.

The positive effect of tea containing these and related chemicals has been long extolled, and though there have been no proven benefits to human health, studies have shown that ageing mice fed on plant-derived flavanol rich diets have enhanced physiological processes and elevated brain activity, improving blood flow to the brain in addition to boosting memory retention. This small study aimed to investigate whether the same applies to larger mammals, us humans.

18 volunteers consumed supplements of only 10 milligrams of flavanols each day across two weeks, while across the same time period another 19 consumed 900 milligrams of flavanols. The dose was delivered in two drinks per day, mixed with water or milk, in addition to a regime of aerobic exercise.

At the end of the three month study, both of the improvements reported in the study involving mice were investigated. All the volunteers underwent MRI scans, which revealed that those taking the higher dose of flavanols had 20% higher blood flow rates to a given region of the brain than those in the other group.

Further, flavanols appear to have improved volunteer’s memories. Both before and after the trail, all 37 people were asked to complete a memory test involving identifying abstract shapes they’ve already been shown from a selection twice the size. The high dose group, on average, reacted to each shape 630 milliseconds faster than the low dose group.

These results confirm what we already know – that ingestion of cocoa flavanols improves vasodialation and blood flow to both the peripheries of the body and the brain, which it does so by acting on the synthesis and degradation of vital nitric oxide compounds. In 2014, the European Food Safety Authority even approved the ability for cocoa products containing over 200 milligrams of flavanols to claim they “maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow”. Some flavanols, eliciting this improved blood flow, have even been linked to reducing the risk of coronary heart disease. The changes seen in this study, however, have even more exciting implications.

The region of increased blood flow, the dentate gyrus, has been previously linked to age-related memory loss, and it is suggested that increasing reaction times in memory based tasks has the potential to give older people elements of brain function that they possessed decades ago.

Sadly though, increasing your consumption of regular chocolate cannot bring you these benefits.

Not only – to quote Scott Small, one of the study’s authors – would you have to consume a volume of chocolate so large as to be damaging to your health to obtain these benefits, peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet has further warnings. An editorial from 2007 actively discouraged against increasing your intake of dark chocolate even slightly above the normal, because of the trade off with increased fat, sugar and calories, as well as the possibility that any flavanols may have been removed anyway, to reduce bitterness.

Authors in the field seem to be keenly aware of the emotionally charged debated and self-professed slight hilarity that surrounds investigating the health benefits of chocolate, especially in the context of media excitement at the prospect – searching for “Is chocolate good for you?” will bring you over 200 million results.

Answers to that question so far seem positive, with the potential to improve countless lives. Investigation into exact the length and magnitude of the effects that flavanols have is still needed, as well as the reminder that, sadly, you likely can’t use these benefits to justify that extra Twix, either.

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The homemade hot chocolate taste test

Revision is a marathon, not a sprint. I am one of those people who cannot cram; if it works for you I am honestly thrilled on your behalf, but I can’t get through it if I don’t have a long haul plan. Each and every day. Up early, work, break, work, break, work, episode of Due South, bed.

This has been my field of view for ten hours a day. For the past two weeks.

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However you do it, though, revision is pretty monotonous. Add in the fact that you can barely be bothered to cook food nor can you spare the time; that you are drinking nothing but tea or coffee at a rate that would be more efficient if replaced by an intravenous drip; and that you are literally sat in the same position day in, day out, it really does get rather boring.

Desperate for distraction the other day, I stumbled across this infographic, which features a tonne of fancy homemade hot chocolate recipes and I thought, why not give them a try? I needed to buy some food anyway, and I was clawing at the windows to be let out and breathe some air that hadn’t already gone through all of my housemates. I could pick up any ingredients I don’t have, and a sugar boost isn’t much different to a caffine boost. At least it’s something different, you know?

And of course, as a firm believer in the Mythbusters adage that the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down, I devised strict criteria of assessment for each recipe I tried. Each of my categories would be ranked on a scale of one to five, with three marking the drink as decidedly average and being no less and no more pleasant than drinking the hot chocolate you get in the university cafe. Categories would be Taste, Texture, Appearance, and Bottom (because come on, all those concentrated chocolate bits at the bottom of a rubbish hot chocolate? Disappointing).

I obtained my supplies. I was ready.

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I went to work.

Pumpkin Spice
1 tsp maple syrup + 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice + whole milk + 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder

I decided to start from the top; my top, that is. As you may have gathered from the little line of soldiers behind my work space, pumpkin pie is rather a passion of mine. An American autumnal and winter classic that has never made its way across the pond, a pumpkin pie is a pastry case blind baked and then filled with condensed milk, sugar, autumnal spices and pumpkin puree. (Waitrose is the only place I’ve found that stocks pumpkin puree, and even then it pops on to and off of the shelves at unpredictable intervals, hence my stockpiling.)

It’s heavenly. It’s my favourite dessert. I was desperate to put chocolate in it and transfer it to drinkable form.

Somewhat unsure of the order in which I should go about combining the ingredients suggested by the recipe, I decided to make a spiced milk mixture, heat it, and then add the chocolate as I would if making a normal drink.

I put maple syrup into the mug, looked at it disappointedly, and then trippled the suggested amount. I made up my pumpkin spice as best I could; they sell pre-mixed spice in America, but I was trying to figure out the ratio of cinnamon:ginger:clove that I usually use for a 9-inch pie and convert it into a half a teaspoon. I probably ended up with teaspoon, but I really didn’t care.

I whacked in the milk, ignoring the recipe’s instruction to use whole milk because I like to remain health conscious even when beginning a journey that will carry me through five mugs of hot chocolate in one day, and fondly watched it fail to spin around in our broken microwave for two minutes.

I removed it, added my cocoa powder, and stirred vigorously.

Without a shadow of a doubt this was one of the best tasting things I’ve recently had the pleasure of drinking. It is like sipping a whole warm, seasonally spiced dessert, though it could have done with thickening up with a side of ice cream. I sat it on a little pyramidal can-throne of its subjects, because it deserves to reign supreme as the chocolate-based liquid-medium form of this dessert.

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Taste: 5/5
Texture: 3/5 – unremarkable, somewhat thin.
Appearance: 2/5 – inconsistent, patches stubborn undissolved spices.
Bottom: 2/5 – gritty from said spices.
Average: 3/5

Verdict: Imagine drinking a roaring fire and autumnal leaves, but in a nice sort of way.

Peanut butter
Few squares of milk chocolate + tablespoon of smooth peanut butter + milk

Though I would have been content to stop at this stage in the game and just make spiced hot chocolate forever more, I steeled my resolve. I added five or so squares of milk chocolate to the mug, then dropped in a loaded tablespoon of chunky peanut butter (my preferred kind, and hence what I had in the cupboard), then covered it to an appropriate level with milk.

After removing it from the microwave it needed a very thorough stir to distribute all the thick bits, which gave me great hope that this would be a pleasant, almost chocolate-custard like drinking experience. It had pleasant appearance with a softly bubbling top. Additionally it also fizzed rather violently whenever agitated, though lack of an experimental control means I’m unsure whether this was some chemical reaction I’d inadvertently created, or merely a by-product of accidentally setting the microwave to four minutes, not two.

Whatever happened, I’m glad it did.

This has the taste and consistency of drinking a melted Snickers. When drinking you are, admittedly, occasionally hit in the face by a floating chunk of peanut, but in my opinion this simply adds to the immersive experience of it being truly intensely peanut butter-and-chocolate-y. It’s almost like those fancy Spanish hot chocolates. Thick, sort of soupy. I really cannot recommend this enough.

Taste: 5/5
Texture: 4/5 – peanut projectiles not withstanding.
Appearance: 3/5 – standard.
Bottom: 3/5 – coagulated peanut butter, not unpleasant.
Average: 3.75/5

Verdict: Imagine drinking a SnickersI will offer this to weary guests forevermore.

White hot chocolate
Few squares of white chocolate + milk

I’ve had white hot chocolate and been blown away in the past, particularly the one from Costa’s winter range. So, at this stage and high on previous successes, I was optimistic. I skipped the lavender recommended by the recipe because, well, I don’t know who you think I am, but it’s certainly not the type of student who grows lavender. I can barely keep a basil plant alive for more than a week.

Once again unsure of the order of ingredients’ addition and repelled by wikiHow’s suggestion that I use two microwavable mugs, I chopped some white chocolate off the bar, whacked it in the microwave with some milk, and hoped for the best.

It tasted exactly like you’d expect, but slightly worse.

It might be the quality of the chocolate I used, but there was a clear and decidedly yellow layer of oil which overlaid the milk, which sadly became startlingly clear every time you tilted the mug to take a drink.

Honestly, be thankful no closer photo than that exists.

The taste itself was actually really quite nice, but it was only remotely possible to enjoy it when I closed my eyes and did not think about the wax-like wash that accompanied every mouthful. I shuddered every time I went to drink, anticipating it contacting my mouth. This was not an enjoyable beverage

I’ve never tried oil pulling but I anticipate it feels something like drinking this.

Taste: 3/5
Texture: 0/5
Appearance: 0/5
Bottom: This would imply I finished it
Average: 0.75/5

Verdict: Imagine melting white chocolate, putting it in hot milk, then adding some olive oil or perhaps a squirt of facial cleanser. You’ll feel the distinct need to eat a salad after this.

Treacle tart
Few squares of milk chocolate + golden syrup + lemon juice + milk

I was unsure, now. Distrustful. I did not believe in the words spoken to me by the friendly infographic. I had been betrayed.

I could trust no one. I was alone in the world.

I came up with my own recipe.

The two previous successes stemming from real-life food options, I realised my best bet was to try and re-create a familiar, enjoyable taste in liquid chocolate form. After pondering briefly for what I desired (and had the facility) to create, I settled upon treacle tarts. They’re not much more than golden syrup and a squeeze of lemon juice, so in the two went to my mug.

The result was, after the white hot chocolate, much needed reaffirmation that there is joy in the world. But I was sorely underwhelmed. It tasted like someone once tried a treacle tart and was trying desperatly recreate it, years later, in the dark, when they had forgotten all the main ingredients and also the type of food a treacle tart is. The result was simply a sweetened hot chocolate with a slightly bitter aftertaste, though the addition of the golden syrup did do it some favours to thicken it and make the drinking experience more pleasant as a whole.

The experience was rather reminiscent of that time in first year when my friends and I did shots of double concentrate lemon squash.

Say no more on this topic. I decided not to come up with any of own my ideas ever again.

Taste: 2/5
Texture: 3/5
Appearance: 3/5
Bottom: 2/5 – consistent with the rest of the drink, and hence not very nice.
Average: 2.5/5

Verdict: Imagine having a very sweet hot chocolate, and followed by a shot of Lemsip.

Nutella
2 tbsp Nutella + 1 tbsp cocoa powder + pinch salt + milk

I was weary, feeling fat, and growing somewhat sick of hot chocolate by this point. I could have quit. But a need to end on a round number compelled me onwards.

Confession: I had to compromise. We don’t actually -gasp- have any Nutella in the house. Instead I stole my flatmate’s Galaxy and Hazelnut spread with the certainty that, when hidden in a mug of milk and under further chocolate products, there would not be a signficant difference in taste. That is perhaps an experiment for a later time.

I squeezed the chocolate spread into the mug (yes, Galaxy and Hazelnut spread comes in a squeezey tube, like a giant toothpaste, it’s disturbing), and added the cocoa powder with no small amount of hesitancy. My experiences have taught me that using the cocoa powder produces a more inconsistent drink, with little undissolved floaty bits, than melting squares of actual chocolate does. I didn’t want to end this whole endeavour on a bad note.

I didn’t.

The thickness of the spread must have evened out the bitty-ness of the cocoa powder, producing a nice even drink with only a very subtle nutty aftertaste. It was vaguely wintery, like you’d had roasted chestnuts after a yule log. That said, next time, I would definitely recreate this with melted squares as my chocolate source.

Taste: 4/5
Texture: 3/5
Appearance: 3/5
Bottom: 4/5
Average: 3.5/5

Verdict: Imagine those hazelnut hot chocolate powders that you can actually buy, then double it in thickness and half it in hazelnut intensity.

Conclusions

So what have we learned?

First and foremost, that attempting to ingest 610 calories of milk and a minimum of 400 calories of further sugary goods is probably not only foolish but also detrimental to your health, particularly when you’re glued to a seat in front of an ocean of notes with no exercise in your foreseeable future. Scientific exploration is not always a valid excuse.

That said?

A clear winner was found. Contributing to not only the taste but also the texture of the drink, peanut butter was a clear winner. Adding to it’s success was, despite Lagrangian behaviour of the peanut pieces both sinking to the drink’s bottom and hitting you in the face when you drank, the use of chunky peanut butter in the place of the suggested smooth.

I’ve done the science so you don’t have to. Go forth and make your drinkable Snickers hot chocolate, everyone.