It’s the season for sweets, and one of the favorites, this Christmas and every Christmas (not to mention Valentine’s Day, Easter, and assorted other special occasions) is chocolate.
Why do we crave this unique food? It’s not just the taste. As new research has shown, a lot of the pleasure we get out of eating chocolate is purely in our heads.
First, we should abolish some of the most pernicious myths about chocolate. Eating chocolate does not cause acne, nor does it aggravate existing acne. Studies at both the Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the U.S. Naval Academy showed that eating chocolate or not eating chocolate had no impact on acne. (Additional studies have found that diet in general is not linked to acne.)
Second, chocolate has not been proven to cause cavities or tooth decay, and in fact there are indications that the cocoa butter in chocolate coats the teeth and may even prevent plaque from forming. Yes, the sugar in chocolate can contribute to calories, but no more than the sugar in any other food.
I can’t, alas, say that chocolate is not fattening. It is a high-calorie food, and you will gain weight if you take in more calories than you’re expending in exercise, but that’s not a fault in chocolate per se; the solution to that “problem” is simply to eat it in moderation.
The cocoa butter in chocolate contains saturated fat, which can increase blood cholesterol levels. However, recent research at the University of California, Davis, shows that chocolate also contains lots of antioxidant chemicals called phenolics, which may help lower the risk of heart disease (coffee and tea also contain high levels of phenolics). Phenolics are also found in red wine. The plants from which these foods (and others) are derived probably make the phenolics to protect themselves against insects and disease, but in our bodies phenolics apparently prevent fat-like substances in the bloodstream from oxidizing and clogging the arteries.
“May” help lower the risk of heart disease is the important qualifier to note in the paragraph above. Phenolics are definitely anti-oxidants, but so far there aren’t any really compelling, large-scale human studies to show if consuming them is beneficial. Still, it’s nice to think that eating a piece of chocolate might be as helpful as it is harmful, isn’t it?
All of this is very interesting, but it still doesn’t explain exactly why we like to eat chocolate so much. For answers to that question, we need to move from the bloodstream to the brain.
Chocolate contains more than 300 known chemicals, and many more unknown ones. Scientists have already found several chemicals that alone and in combination definitely have an impact on the way we feel.
One of the most obvious is caffeine, but there’s not that much of it in chocolate–certainly nothing like the amount found in coffee. However, there is another weak stimulant, called theobromine, present in slightly higher amounts, and these two working together could be enough to give us a lift when we eat chocolate–especially in conjunction with another chemical found in chocolate called phenylethylamine, a substance related to amphetamines. All three of these stimulants make us more alert by increasing the activity of neurotransmitters, the chemicals our brain uses to communicate with itself.
But we could be getting more out of chocolate than just a mild mental stimulation. Researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego think chocolate has an effect on the brain related to the effect of marijuana.
Brain cells have a receptor–a structure on their surface that can lock onto certain molecules–for a neurotransmitter called anandamide, which is produced naturally in the brain. When this receptor was first located, however, it wasn’t because it locks onto anandamide–it was because it also locks onto a substance called THC (well, actually it’s called tetrahydrocannabinol, but THC is much easier), the active ingredient for marijuana.
Anandamide, researchers speculate, may play a role in natural feelings of euphoria, those moments when everything feels wonderful and five minutes can seem like an hour–which is why THC, when it locks onto the anandamide receptor, makes us feel “high.”
THC isn’t found in chocolate (much to the relief of chocolate makers); however, chocolate does contain two chemicals that inhibit the natural breakdown of anandamide. That could mean that when we’re already feeling good, chocolate makes us feel even better by prolonging the euphoria.
Another study seems to indicate that eating chocolate causes the brain to produce more “opioid” chemicals. “Opioid” chemicals also make us feel good–the similarity to the word “opiate” is intentional. Adam Drewnowski of the University of Michigan found that chemically blocking receptors for opioid chemicals in the brain decreased the consumption of high-fat chocolates by compulsive eaters by more than half.
It’s a fascinating field of study. In fact, I think it’s so fascinating that, if anyone in Saskatchewan is currently pursuing chocolate research, I would like to offer myself up right here and now as a test subject. I pledge to eat as much chocolate as is necessary to get to the bottom of this.
It’s the least I can do.