By NORBERT HERZOG and DAVID NIESEL

Peanuts creator Charles Schulz once said, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” New research shows he might be right. In one study, certain compounds in cocoa called flavonols reversed age-related memory problems.

Flavonols, found in a variety of plants, are potent antioxidants that help cells in the body deal with free radicals. Free radicals arise from normal cellular processes, as well as from exposure to environmental contaminants, especially cigarette smoke. Unless your body gets rid of free radicals, they can damage proteins, lipids and even your genetic information. You can get flavonols from tea, red wine, berries, cocoa and chocolate. Flavonols are what give cocoa that strong, bitter and pungent taste. Cocoa is processed through fermentation, alkalization and roasting among other methods, which can influence how much of the good flavonols are lost. Among the products made from cocoa, those with the highest levels of flavonol are cocoa powders not processed by the Dutch method, followed by unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate and semisweet chips, then milk chocolate, and finally chocolate syrup contained the least. In the latest study, a cocoa drink specially formulated by the Mars food company to retain flavonols was compared with another drink that contained very little flavonols. The study asked 37 randomly selected adults ages 50 to 69 to take one of the drinks. One group consumed 900 milligrams per day of flavonols and the others consumed only 10 milligrams per day for three months. Brain imaging and memory tests were administered before and after the trial.

Those who consumed the high levels of cocoa flavonols had better brain function and improved memories. Before the study, the subjects on average demonstrated the memory of a typical 60-year-old person. At the end, those who consumed more flavonols exhibited the memory capabilities more closely resembling a 30- to 40-year-old. Unfortunately, the average candy bar contains only about 40 milligrams of flavonol, so you would have to eat 23 of them a day to equal the amount of flavonol used in the study, which would lead to other health problems like obesity and diabetes.

Other studies have similarly revealed that high-flavonol cocoa beverages cause regional changes in the brain’s blood flow, suggesting that it could be used to treat vascular impairments within the brain. Flavonols have also been reported to reduce blood pressure and other factors that lead to cardiovascular disease, improve insulin sensitivity, modulate platelet activity thereby reducing the risk of blood clots and improve the activities of the endothelial cells that line our blood vessels. The Kuna Indians living on the San Blas Islands near Panama, who consume a type of cocoa rich in flavonol on a daily basis, have unusually low rates of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.

These studies need to be repeated with larger groups to confirm the benefits of consuming flavonols and to ensure that there are no negative effects. Still, if a cocoa beverage high in flavonols could be mass produced and marketed, we could improve human health in a tasty way.

Professors Norbert Herzog and David Niesel are biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at medcaldiscoverynews.com.