Artisan chocolate made in Scotland can increase reaction times and improve tactical ability in rugby players, scientists have claimed.
Nutritionists at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University (QMU) enlisted a dozen Scottish rugby sevens players to investigate the effects of chocolate on their performance.
The sportsmen were given various chocolate snacks in addition to their strict dietary regime over the course of a month. Then they were tested on mental agility and decision-making after intensive training bouts.
The players who had eaten the Scottish chocolate were found to score highest in the speed and accuracy of cognitive function tests.
Researchers believe the boost in performance was caused by particularly high levels of antioxidants found in the bars, made near Stirling.
Antioxidants, which are found in many fruits and vegetables and red wine, are proven to have a positive effect on heart health and mental function. Cocoa is rich source of antioxidants. The hand-wrapped organic bars made by iQ Chocolate contain 72 per cent cocoa, but it is believed the firm’s production process means the organic bars have preserved the maximum amount of antioxidants.
“Cocoa-rich products like chocolate are amongst the most concentrated and valuable sources of antioxidants in the diet,” said principal researcher Dr Jane McKenzie, of the Food and Drink Knowledge Exchange at QMU.
“Antioxidants play a valuable role in maintaining good health. They can help protect cells from damage and are important in the fight against disease, as well as improved mental function. Our research showed that there was a trend towards greater cognitive performance.”
The findings of the study could bring about a step change in the nutritional image of chocolate, which is often seen as an unhealthy indulgence that should be avoided.
Richard Chessor, lead nutritionist for Scottish Rugby, said: “Maintaining cognitive performance is crucial to success in elite sport and therefore any strategies that may support the reaction time and decision-making ability of our players are incredibly valuable.
“We’ve used iQ chocolate at Scottish Rugby for the past year as it contains a strong nutritional profile, which we feel benefits our players across a number of physical and mental parameters.
“In particular, the superior antioxidant content of iQ chocolate compared to rival chocolates turns it from a forbidden food to a functional food.”
The firm was set up by self-confessed “chocolate alchemists” Kate Hamilton and Jane Shandley, who use only organic ingredients in a process designed to retain the maximum nutritional value of the cocoa beans.
Ms Hamilton said: “The latest scientific data from QMU is helping us develop our product range, aimed at specific sectors.
“Based on the findings from this research, we are extending our product offering to include a range of bars specifically designed for athletes and other sport and exercise participants looking for a natural boost to sporting performance.
“We are continuing to work with QMU as part of our drive to reposition chocolate as a naturally healthy food to be enjoyed as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.”
Dr McKenzie said the information could help health-conscious consumers who want to know about the nutritional content of snacks.