Ok, it’s been a long time coming, but here’s finally my post on chocolate. And, to no surprise perhaps, I will approach the subject scientifically.
But before we dwell into the amazing scientific properties of chocolate (and there are many, believe me), let me just state – for the record, if you like – that I love chocolate. I just adore it. I will try to not let that affect my judgement when writing this post. I will fail.
First, let us get some myths out-of-the-way: chocolate will induce headaches and migraines. It also ruins our complexion by giving us numerous spots. In addition, it affects our sex drive by acting like an aphrodisiac. It will fill us up with the ’love drug’, causing the consumer to become ‘loved up’.
None of the above is true. Chocolate, instead of being the cause of migraine attacks, actually reduces them. And no links have been found between chocolate and bad skin. If anything, sugar seems to be the bad guy there, so by eating dark chocolate you will reduce the risk of sugar-induced spots. And no, chocolate doesn’t act like an aphrodisiac or love-drug. Even though it contains some small amounts of beta-phenethylamine, it will be metabolised into inactive compounds before reaching our blood stream in anything but trace amounts. Sorry.
The chemistry of chocolate
Chocolate, as in the ground-up mass of the fermented and roasted seeds from the cacao plant, contains no sugar. It does however contain a delicious cocktail of organic compounds that have a range of pleasant effects on us.
First we have the previously mentioned ’love drug’ beta-phenethylamine. Unfortunately it’s not present in high enough concentrations to give any effect, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.
Then we have both tryptophan and serotonin. Tryptophan is known as the ‘drowsiness drug’, and affect our sleepiness. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter directly manufactured in the body from tryptophan. Drugs that raise the level of serotonin are used to treat depression, anxiety disorders and social phobias, so if we were to get high enough concentrations of serotonin and tryptophan from chocolate, it should work as an anti-depressant, even though this has yet to be verified.
Add to that theobromine, which is known as a blood pressure reducing drug. It is also known to prevent coughing better than codeine. In addition, Theobromine acts as a mild stimulant, and should work particular well together with coffee.
Better than love?
It’s been shown that letting chocolate melt in your mouth gives you a higher levels of pleasure than kissing. The after effects also lasts for several minutes longer.
So perhaps there’s something to this aphrodisiac myth after all? Is there something in chocolate we don’t know about yet?
Well, no. That’s unlikely. More likely is the possibility that the act of eating chocolate in itself is responsible for the pleasure. The taste and texture in combination could be responsible for the prolonged effect.
So the custom of offering a box of chocolate to the object of your affection is probably just what it looks like: giving something people seem to like to the one that you like. Can’t hurt, can it?*
Chocolate’s evil twin – the white ‘chocolate’
White chocolate is an abomination and should not be allowed to be sold. At least not as chocolate. I’m sorry, but there it is.
First it’s the appearance of it. White chocolate looks like something left in the windowsill all summer and then rediscovered in the autumn, all pale and sun damaged. Appetising? I don’t think so.
Then we have the smell. It smells more like butter than chocolate, and who’d like to eat butter? No one, that’s who.
And for the taste? It just tastes of sugar and milk. Not like chocolate at all.
And finally the chemical content: being manufactured from cocoa butter and no cocoa solids (I told you it smelled like butter, didn’t I?), it contains none of the ‘happiness’ compounds found in chocolate proper.
But let us end this post on a positive note, washing away the dull and boring taste of that white ‘chocolate’.
There’s a surprise in store for us chocolate lovers: we might win the Nobel prize.
Dr Franz Messerli, curious about the benefits of flavonoids found in chocolate, wine and green or white tea, started to plot chocolate consumption against the per-capita share of last year’s Nobel prizes. The result was a surprisingly strong correlation, as can be seen in the graph to the right.
It would appear that if people consume more than 2 kg of dark chocolate per person and year, the likelihood of their country winning a Nobel prize starts to increase.
Chocolate is our friend
It would seem that not only is chocolate not really bad for us, it’s actually benefitial; it provides several health benefits and well as improving our mental capabilities.
So, rather than being our guilty pleasure, chocolate should be revered as a health food**. Yes, chocolate is indeed our friend.
* I guess it COULD hurt if the person you’re giving it to can’t eat chocolate for some reason.
** These finding almost exclusively relate to dark chocolate, not milk chocolate. Dark chocolate contain less sugar and fat, and have a natural shut-down mechanism that prevent us from eating too much of it.