I am inextricably drawn to chocolate and would describe myself as a bit of a chocoholic…but why is this, why is chocolate so desirable and irresistible? I thought I’d do a little research to see what the experts have to say.
What is chocolate?
Chocolate comes from the beans of the small evergreen cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), native to the tropical regions of Central and South America. These trees were discovered by the ancient Aztecs and Maya peoples, who had many ways of making food and drink from their seeds (commonly referred to as ‘cocoa beans’).
Chocolate is made by fermenting and roasting these cocoa beans to form two ingredients – cocoa powder (solids) and cocoa butter. Interestingly, it is the fermentation process that gives chocolate it’s distinctive flavour. Varying proportions of cocoa powder and cocoa butter are then blended with sugar and in some cases milk to create the chocolate we find so irresistible.
Dark chocolate has the highest percentage of cocoa solids and uses cocoa butter rather than milk.
Milk chocolate in the UK has a minimum of 20% cocoa solids (25% min in the EU).
White chocolate made from cocoa butter, no cocoa solids.
Why is chocolate so desirable?
Scientists have been trying to understand this question for a long time, so what have they discovered?
The chemistry of chocolate
Chocolate contains an impressive collection of naturally occurring chemicals. The darker the chocolate, the higher the number of chemicals. It is these chemicals that make chocolate arouse our senses. These beneficial chemicals, according to the experts are:
- Theobromine thought to make chocolate a mild aphrodisiac – interestingly there is more found in chocolate than any other food! A gentle stimulant, known to increase heart rate, energy and serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of love and desire.
- Phenylethylamine, a compound called the “love drug”, which can raise levels of endorphins, the pleasure-giving substances, in the brain. It also increases the activity of dopamine, the body’s reward chemical, combining to produce the kind of feeling that you get when you are in love.
- Caffeine which can make us feel awake and increase our ability to work and focus.
- Anandamide (Sanskrit word for “bliss”) is another feel-good chemical. A chemical found naturally in the brain and similar to one found in marijuana! Researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California, think the anandamide in chocolate makes our natural anandamide persist for longer so giving us a longer-lasting “chocolate high.”
Heart rate and the Chocolate buzz
Research carried out by Dr David Lewis, formerly of the University of Sussex, and now of the Mind Lab, discovered that by allowing chocolate, especially dark chocolate, to melt on your tongue, raised heart rates from a resting rate of about 60 beats per minute to 140 – the secret to maximising the chocolate buzz?
Love makes the world go round but CHOCOLATE makes the trip worthwhile
Naughty but Nice!
No everyone agrees that there are sufficient quantities of these feel-good chemicals present in chocolate to account for the irresistible pleasure we experience from eating it. Debra Zellner, Professor of psychology at Montclair State University in New Jersey, believes chocolate is desirable because it is nutritionally taboo, and consumption is ‘pleasurably transgressive’, or to put it another way, naughty but nice!
Why are there times when we absolutely have to have chocolate, why do we crave it so? The scientists say that while these cravings may not come from a chocolate deficiency, per se, there are several components in chocolate that the body may become deficient in, especially magnesium and antioxidants.
Chocolate cravings linked to Magnesium deficiency
Magnesium, an essential mineral that reduces stress by suppressing the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Experts estimate that around 80% of us are deficient in magnesium. Chocolate is not the highest magnesium food available. Leafy greens, figs, avocado and nuts all have more magnesium per gram. Chocolate, however, is the only food in the magnesium top-ten that is also is known for its ability to promote neurotransmitter activity, dopamine production and a feeling of happiness. A word of caution – experts say that while eating dark chocolate may be the tastiest way to increase magnesium levels, it probably isn’t the most effective.
Flavonols and Chocolate
Chocolate contains flavonols, antioxidants that are said to be anti-ageing. They help promote healthy blood flow and blood pressure. Unfortunately, the experts believe that we would need to consume huge amounts of chocolate to get enough antioxidants to see any benefit! Dark chocolate contains the highest amounts of flavonols, but most manufacturers actually remove flavonols as they make chocolate taste bitter.
Chocolate – the healthy end of the treat spectrum!
I have found my research into ‘why is chocolate so desirable’ fascinating. I’ve loved uncovering the facts and learning a little about what makes chocolate so special. However, I don’t think it has persuaded me to eat either more or less. What about you?