Chocolate Bar

How dark chocolate protects the brain

JOHNS HOPKINS (US)—It’s not the distinctive chocolate aroma or the luscious bittersweet taste. Researchers say it’s a compound in dark chocolate that appears to limit stroke damage by amplifying brain signals that protect nerve cells.

Ninety minutes after feeding mice a single modest dose of the compound epicatechin, found naturally in dark chocolate, the scientists induced ischemic stroke by essentially cutting off blood supply to the animals’ brains.

They found that the animals that had preventively ingested the epicatechin suffered significantly less brain damage than the ones that had not been given the compound.

The study appears online in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism.

And while most treatments for stroke in humans have to be given within a two- to three-hour time window to be effective, epicatechin also appeared to limit further neuronal damage when given to mice as much as 3.5 hours after a stroke.

Sylvain Doré, associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine and pharmacology and molecular sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says the study suggests that epicatechin can stimulate two previously well-known pathways that shield nerve cells in the brain from damage.

The amount of dark chocolate people would need to consume to benefit from its protective effects remains unclear, Doré notes, since he has not studied it in humans.  But Doré says his team’s research suggests the amount needed could be quite small. The reason: The suspected beneficial mechanism is indirect and the epicatechin is needed to jump-start protective pathways already present within the cells.

“Epicatechin itself may not be shielding brain cells from free radical damage directly, but instead, epicatechin and its metabolites may be prompting the cells to defend themselves,” he says. “Even a small amount may be sufficient.”

Doré eventually hopes his research into the pathways could lead to ways to limit acute stroke damage and possibly protect against chronic neurological degenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related cognitive disorders.

Scientists became intrigued by epicatechin when studying the Kuna Indians, a remote population living on islands off the coast of Panama. The islands’ residents had a low incidence of cardiovascular disease. Scientists who studied them found nothing striking in their genes and realized that when they moved away from Kuna, they were no longer protected from heart problems.

Researchers soon discovered the reason was likely environmental: The residents of Kuna regularly drank a very bitter cocoa drink, with a consistency like molasses, instead of coffee or soda. The drink was high in epicatechin, which is a flavanol, a flavanoid-related compound.

People shouldn’t take the research as a free pass to consume large amounts of chocolate, which is high in calories and fat, Doré notes. In fact, he says, people should eat a healthy diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Not all dark chocolates are created equally, Doré adds. Some have more bioactive epicatechin than others.

“The epicatechin found in dark chocolate is extremely sensitive to changes in heat and light,” he says. “In the process of making chocolate, you have to make sure you don’t destroy it. Only few chocolates have the active ingredient. The fact that it says ‘dark chocolate’ is not sufficient.”

The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart and Stroke Association.

More news from Johns Hopkins:

chat24 Comments


  1. Dan McMackin

    I suppose the researchers never tested various dark chocolate brands to see which ones have the active ingredient mentioned, but it sure would be nice to know. The story is a bit of a cliff hanger for me as it leads you to the wonderful conclusion (epicatechin may protect from awful maladies) without giving you the one piece of data you really want to know, “Which darn chocolate bars have this stuff?!!!”

  2. Rick Gray

    Our patented process (cold pressing) keeps the cocao raw. We have outstanding HEALTHY chocolate.

  3. Kelly Grier

    I eat one square of a good quality 70% dark chocolate (although my preference is milk chocolate, darn it) It sure would help to know WHICH brand is best. Don’t know if it helps, I drink one cup of black coffee in the morning with a tablespoon of Hershey Cocoa powder (no sugar or milk. Wonder if that is helpful for my health???????????

  4. Carol

    Rick Gray, what is your brand of chocolate? I’m currently eating a couple of squares of Lindt 90% almost every day. It would be so helpful to know what to get. I’ve loved dark choc all my life. Started with Hershey’s milk chocolate as a pre-schooler, though.

  5. lookingforlove

    Dark chocolate is for lovers too. Helps to stimulate the love hormones. Eat some today. Better loving tomorrow.

  6. John

    Carol, if you click on Rick Gray’s name, it will take you to his website. But unfortunately, while his chocolate may be healthy, there’s no telling what its levels of epicatechin may be.

  7. Rick Gray

    John, our epicatechins and catechins are some of the highest you can get. Check out our ORAC scores, we are certified the highest level antioxidant chocolate. We have a patent on the process (cold pressing) which keeps the cacao raw and not dutched. Our chocolate is as good as it gets.

    Carol, you can buy the chocolate retail at my website:

  8. John

    Thanks for the clarification, Rick. It is my understanding that the FDA has ruled that it’s illegal to imply increased health benefits from a food simply because it has a high ORAC number. Has that changed?

    Guidance for Industry, Food Labeling; Nutrient Content Claims; Definition for “High Potency” and Definition for “Antioxidant” for Use in Nutrient Content Claims for Dietary Supplements and Conventional Foods
    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, June 2008

  9. Rick Gray

    John, I do not know if the FDA rules have changed. I do know (and list them on my websites) of hundreds of studies done on dark chocolate and it’s health benefits. I simply point to those articles and our ORAC values so people can draw their own conclusions.

    I also have seen personal examples of the health benefits of eating small amounts of our chocolate, which is unprocessed and not cooked.

    I appreciate where you are coming from, John. :)

  10. John

    Yeah, your product looks delicious, Rick. Especially those nuggets. I hope this research pans out and provides good human evidence of in vivo benefits from epicatechin.

  11. Rick Gray

    Let me know if you would like to try some, John. I will send you a package. :) Just email me at:

  12. Kelly Grier

    Why no comments on my question about pputting cocoa powder in my coffee (no milk or sugar)???????

  13. Sol

    Oxcai is a multi-level company – and like many of them there is a lot of half truth and half information on their website. I had a hard time finding the ingredients in the chocolate. For the liquid here is what they write:
    Natural Cocoa Powder, Freeze Dried Grape Concentrate, Crystalline Fructose (low glycemic), Maltodextrin (soluble dietary fiber), Natural Erythritol, Natural Flavors, Lecithin, Açaí Powder, Natural Blueberry Powder, Xanthan Gum, Saigon Cinnamon, Citric Acid, Cayenne Pepper. Contains Soy and Milk.

    Erythritol is a sugar. Here is what Wikipedia says about how Erythritol is metabolized by the human body.

    Erythritol and human digestion
    In the body, erythritol is absorbed into the bloodstream in the small intestine, and then for the most part excreted unchanged in the urine. Because erythritol is normally absorbed before it enters the large intestine, it does not normally cause laxative effects as are often experienced after over-consumption of other sugar alcohols (such as xylitol and maltitol) and most people will consume erythritol with no side effects. This is a unique characteristic, as other sugar alcohols are not absorbed directly by the body in this manner, and consequently are more prone to causing gastric distress [4].

    As a whole, erythritol is generally free of side-effects in regular use, but if consumed in very extreme quantities (sometimes encouraged by its almost non-caloric nature), effectively consuming it faster than one’s body can absorb it, a laxative effect may result. The laxative response does not begin until you cross your body’s natural absorption threshold, which is the point at which you have ingested more erythritol than is found in reasonable servings of food products and is usually a larger amount than most people will eat in a single sitting. Erythritol, when compared with other sugar alcohols, is also much more difficult for intestinal bacteria to digest, so it is unlikely to cause gas or bloating [5], unlike maltitol, sorbitol, or lactitol.

  14. mike ohare

    I think you should take a close look at Galaxy dark, made by Mars. Google

  15. Rick Gray

    Mike, the Galaxy Dark bars look good, but they are still processed (dutched = roasted) which destroys much of the benefits of cacao.

    Our chocolate at: is raw, unprocessed cacao. It is also combined with the acai berry which is also a top antioxidant food.

    Our company has the patent on the process of cold pressing the chocolate, so it’s not roasted, dutched or cooked. BIG difference.

  16. Donna Davis

    It would be nice to have a list of recommended dark chocolate. It is also equally important that the chocolate is Fair Trade chocolate. Thousands of children are enslaved on cocoa farms in hazardous conditions and most farmers are paid prices so low for the cocoa that they cannot support their families.

  17. winifred

    pls i want to know how epicatechin can actually act as antihyperglycemia. (i mean the mechanism of action)

  18. Kenny

    The Center for Flavonoid Research has an excellent White Paper study on the benefits of Dark Chocolate:

  19. pat a thomas

    I was married to a cacoa “farmer” on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. The “farm” was small as were the other “farms” in the area. We “worked” the farm ourselves as did the other families. No enslaved child labor. There really wasn’t much labor required. The farms were like bank accounts. If you needed some money, you went into the “farm” and cut some cacoa. Few here would be able to distinguish the “farms” from the surrounding jungle. The only difference was that the “farms” had cacoa trees interspersed with the jungle vegetation. So, there was no upkeep to speak of.
    As far as the best chocolate available here as a source of epicatechin, I would not depend on any of it, whether cold-processed, or not. In Costa Rica, my mother-in-law made large balls (softball size) of cacoa after the seeds had been fermented in very large, covered trays outdoors. And, having spent a short time among some Cuna in Panama, I’m sure their cacaoa was equally unprocessed. Processed chocolate probably does not contain efficatious amounts of epicatechin. And, that would be difficult to verify since what constitutes an efficatious amount has apparently not been established, yet.

  20. Diana McCalla

    I concur with what Rick Gray has to say. His chocolate carries the Brunswick Labs Seal of Certification for its ORAC (antioxidant) levels – and even more important – the flavanoid content. epicatechins and catechins are the real work horses of the flavanoids. Commercial processing destroys most of these fragile antioxidants. If the product does not carry the certification – it probably doesn’t have any. Rick’s company is ethical enough to certify the ORAC and the flavanoid content on the finished product. So you can’t dispute this product delivers. Like Rick said, this product is a functional food, so you have to read the studies and draw your own conclusion. I no longer take pain pills for the arthritis in my hips and hands and am completely pain free since eating this chocolate. Also, I no longer bruise the way I used to.

  21. Alisa

    Rick is right! However, just eating the beans is the best. Xocai is the only product that comes close to the chocoalte flavour and goodness we all know andlove. It’s taste jsut can’t be beat – plus it simply trumps other roasted commercial chocoalte in flavanoid and epicatechin content. See more here:

  22. ananair

    I worked for a chocolate factory in Brazil for a few months. the cocoa beans came from the northeast. One of the world’s largest producers of chocolate, Nestle, owned or subsidized farms. We used the “traditional “hot process which consisted of roasting the cacao beans, Coffee beans are processed in the same way, as a matter of fact using the same kind of equipment. which was made in Germany, by companies like Probat.
    Roasting the cacao beans was followed by a process called CONCHING to convert the beans into cocoa butter. The process name derived from the shape of the machine which resembled a shell or conch. It took hours and we had an exhaust system to remove the extremely foul smelling vapors which in coffee are sulphur compounds, mercaptans. Heating and conching would remove from the beans, water, volatiles and these compounds which otherwise might be retained.
    I have been searching for a description of this patented so-called “cold processing” How would I find it?
    Does it include converting the beans into butter and if so, does it use a mechanical process similar to conching? Does it use very low temperatures to condense and contain these foul smelling vapors?

    Chocolate and coffee both contain caffeine. In the coffee company where I also worked, years ago the caffeine was removed using chemical solvents resembling paint thinner, There was always the possibility of minute traces of chemicals remaining in the coffee since no process is perfect The removed caffeine was sold to soft drink manufacturers like Coca Cola. The chemical solvent has been replaced by carbon dioxide in what is now escribed as a “water” process.
    How is the caffeine removed in this dark chocolate? if it is not removed how can anyone claim the chocolate is “caffeine free”?

  23. amal

    I think the Mayan superfood cacao nibs or the powder is a great. its raw unprocessed cold pressed on the powder. its great email me for info which has a great antioxidant and epicatechin…

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