The nutritional merits and demerits of chocolate have long been debated. While it undoubtedly gets a bad rap for causing weight gain, scientists have attempted to study the potential cognitive and cardiovascular benefits of this delicious treat over the years.

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. The flavonoids in these seeds — specifically, catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins — are thought to help the cardiovascular system by lowering cholesterol, reducing inflammation, and preventing blood clots. In a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors observed that the consumption of a small amount of dark chocolate daily for 18 weeks reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 3mm/2mm Hg compared to baseline, which was estimated to reduce relative risk for stroke and cardiovascular disease by 8% and 5% respectively. White chocolate was unfortunately not associated with any such improvement.

There are also theories that cocoa may be brain-healthy. Another team of researchers at Harvard Medical School found that older adults who drank two cups of cocoa a day for 30 days had improved blood flow to certain parts of their brain.

In a tongue-in-cheek study in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr Franz Messerli, a NY cardiologist, studied the correlation between a country’s level of chocolate consumption and its population’s cognitive function. He used the total number of Nobel laureates per capita as a surrogate to reflect the proportion with superior cognitive function in a given country, and found a strong linear correlation (r=0.791, P<0.0001) between chocolate consumption per capita and the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million persons.

And guess who led the pack? The Swiss, of course, each of whom eats 120 bars of chocolate per year on average! The U.S. was in the middle of pack on both chocolate consumption and Nobel Prize winners per capita. To produce just one more laureate, the author hilariously notes, our nation would have to boost its cocoa intake by about a pound per person per year.

If you decide to indulge in some chocolate, do it in moderation. Pick a high-quality, organic, dark brand with cocoa content of over 70%. Even if it doesn’t make you smarter, it will probably make you happier… which is just as important in life!

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