Is Chocolate the New Coffee?

When the midday slump hits, try reaching for some chocolate instead of a cup of joe. Your brain may thank you.
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Food Network Kitchen’s Baking Ingredient Guide to Chocolate for THANKSGIVING/BAKING/WEEKEND COOKING, as seen on Food Network.

Photo by: Renee Comet ©Renee Comet

Renee Comet, Renee Comet

Chocolate lovers have a lot to be happy about lately. New research is emerging all the time about the potential health benefits of this sweet treat. The cacao plant (from which chocolate is made) is a rich source of antioxidants called flavanols. Antioxidants keep you healthy by fending off free radical damage that leads to — among other things — cancer. And flavanols have specific benefits for your heart: They can lower blood pressure, make blood platelets less sticky and improve blood flow — all of which helps prevent heart disease.

But a brand-new study took a look at chocolate in a new light. The researchers' aim was to investigate not the well-documented vasodilating effect of some flavanols (which dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure), but the vasoconstricting effect that others can have. "The sympathomimetics are stimulants that acutely vasoconstrict blood vessels and activate the brain in unique ways," explains Larry Stevens, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northern Arizona University and author of the study. The researchers had subjects eat 60-percent-cacao chocolate and then tested brain activity using EEG images. What they found is that after eating the chocolate, subjects experienced an immediate stimulant effect, their brains were more alert and their blood pressure increased temporarily. This makes chocolate perfect for combating what Stevens calls "the afternoon cognitive slump."

Not any old candy bar will do the trick, however. Look for dark chocolate bars that contain at least 60 percent cacao.

Here are a few that fill the bill:

Or, whip up one of these attention-improving treats:

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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