Eating foods rich in flavanols may improve brain health, a new study suggests

If apples, pistachios, cocoa, and tea don’t appear often in your diet, consider incorporating them into your regular menu.

Thanks to their flavanol content, this can mitigate age-related memory loss. That’s according to new research from Columbia University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

Here’s what to know about the study, plus the best foods for increasing your daily intake of flavanols.

What are Flavanols?

Flavanols belong to the flavonoid family, a large group of more than 6,000 protective plant compounds found in fruits, vegetables, and many other plant foods.

Specifically, you’ll find flavanols in apples, apricots, strawberries, peaches, plums, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, tea, pecans, pistachios, and cinnamon.

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Flavanols are thought to benefit cognitive health by increasing the growth of neurons and blood vessels in the hippocampus, the brain region involved in learning and memory. (Neurons are specialized cells in the brain and nervous system that receive and transmit information.)

The US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends consuming 400 to 600 mg of dietary flavonol, which is based largely on evidence suggesting that flavanols help improve cardiometabolic health, for example, blood pressure and cholesterol levels , triglycerides and glucose.

Normal cognitive aging

As we age our brain shrinks and there is a decline in its receptors for neurotransmitters, chemicals that send messages from the brain to other tissues in the body. It also decreases the number of synapses, the places where neurons connect and communicate with each other.

These age-related changes contribute to minor cognitive deficits in memory, processing speed, attention, reasoning, planning, problem solving, and multitasking.

About the new research

The randomized controlled trial, published May 29 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, set out to determine whether flavanols reduce age-related memory decline in healthy older adults.

The study, called COSMOS-Web, gave 3,562 participants, average age 71, a daily supplement of 500 mg of cocoa flavanols or a placebo pill for three years. COSMOS stands for COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study.

At the start of the trial, all participants completed a survey assessing the quality of their usual diet.

They also ran a series of web-based cognitive tests designed to detect short-term memory loss due to normal aging. Cognitive tests were repeated annually for the duration of the study.

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Overall, memory scores improved only slightly for the group taking flavanol supplements. When the researchers looked at diet quality, however, memory scores varied.

After the first year of flavanol supplementation, participants with low diet quality scores saw their memory scores increase by 10% compared to the placebo group and by 16% compared to their baseline cognitive score.

These improvements, while modest, were maintained for the remainder of the study.

Taking flavanol supplements did not improve short-term memory in people who had higher diet quality scores and already consumed a lot of flavanols.

These findings, which build on previous studies linking flavanols to healthy brain aging, suggest that a diet low in flavanols could promote age-related memory loss.

They also support the idea that, just as certain nutrients are vital to a developing brain, specific nutrients also strengthen an aging brain.

This process is notable for its large size and long duration. Study participants were predominantly white and highly educated, so the findings may not apply to different people.

Eat these foods to get your daily flavanols

You don’t need to rely on a supplement to get 500mg of flavanols per day.

This way is very achievable through diet. Additionally, flavanol-rich foods are packed with other protective nutrients and phytochemicals.

Consider that an eight-ounce cup of green tea provides 332 mg of flavanols; eight ounces of black tea contains 273 mg.

One medium-sized Red Delicious apple has 271 mg of flavanols, one cup of sliced ​​strawberries serves 236 mg, two plums have 291 mg, and one medium-sized peach has 104 mg.

You’ll find 237 mg of flavanols in a quarter cup of pistachios (49 kernels) and 123 mg in a quarter cup of pecan halves.

A half teaspoon of cinnamon contains 105 mg of flavanols and a tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder contains 75 mg.

However, don’t count on dark chocolate to get your daily flavanols.

Chocolate with higher percentages of cocoa solids has higher amounts of flavanols. But even dark chocolate bars with a higher percentage of cocoa solids can have different levels of flavanols.

This is because cocoa flavanols are often destroyed by a number of steps in cocoa processing. As a result, the flavanol content of dark chocolate can vary considerably. Sorry to disappoint.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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