Chocolate is the solid gold of sweets, providing a standard of delectability that’s been upheld around the globe for more than 2,000 years. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs even used the pods of the cacao tree, which produces chocolate, as currency. They also used cacao as a tonic to improve overall health.
Chocolate Listeni/ˈtʃɒkᵊlət/ is a typically sweet, usually brown, food preparation of Theobroma cacao seeds, roasted and ground, often flavored, as with vanilla. It is made in the form of a liquid, paste or in a block or used as a flavoring ingredient in other sweet foods. Cacao has been cultivated by many cultures for at least three millennia in Mesoamerica. The earliest evidence of use traces to the Mokaya (Mexico and Guatemala), with evidence of chocolate beverages dating back to 1900 BC. In fact, the majority of Mesoamerican people made chocolate beverages, including the Maya and Aztecs, who made it into a beverage known as xocolātl /ʃoˈkolaːt͡ɬ/, a Nahuatl word meaning “bitter water”. The seeds of the cacao tree have an intense bitter taste and must be fermented to develop the flavor.
After fermentation, the beans are dried, cleaned, and roasted. The shell is removed to produce cacao nibs, which are then ground to cocoa mass, pure chocolate in rough form. Because the cocoa mass is usually liquefied before being molded with or without other ingredients, it is called chocolate liquor. The liquor also may be processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Unsweetened baking chocolate (bitter chocolate) contains primarily cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions. Much of the chocolate consumed today is in the form of sweet chocolate, a combination of cocoa solids, cocoa butter or other fat, and sugar. Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate that additionally contains milk powder or condensed milk. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, and milk but no cocoa solids.
Cocoa solids are one of the richest sources of flavanol antioxidants. They also contain alkaloids such as theobromine, phenethylamine and caffeine. These have physiological effects on the body and are linked to serotonin levels in the brain. Some research has found that chocolate, eaten in moderation, can lower blood pressure. The presence of theobromine renders chocolate toxic to some animals, including dogs and cats.
Chocolate has become one of the most popular food types and flavors in the world, and a vast number of foodstuffs involving chocolate have been created. Chocolate chip cookies have become very common, and very popular, in most parts of Europe and North America. Gifts of chocolate molded into different shapes have become traditional on certain holidays. Chocolate is also used in cold and hot beverages such as chocolate milk and hot chocolate.
Although cocoa originated in the Americas, today Western Africa produces almost two-thirds of the world’s cocoa, with Côte d’Ivoire growing almost half of it.
European Union regulations require dark chocolate to have at least 60% cocoa solids, milk chocolate 25%, and white chocolate none.
The Chemistry of Chocolate
There’s actually more than one compound found in chocolate that could potentially make a person high. For starters, the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world is found in chocolate [source: Fackelmann]. The compound 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine — better known as caffeine — occurs naturally. It produces a stimulating physiological effect by exciting the central nervous system, which, in turn, increases heart rate and contracts muscles. It’s a lot like the fight-or-flight response. Caffeine acts on dopamine and adenosine receptors in the brain, which then release their respective pleasure-producing chemicals.
A compound that’s closely related to the active ingredient in marijuana (tetrahydrocannabinol-9) is also found in chocolate. Fatty acids called cannabinoids hit the CB1 and CB2 receptors found most predominantly in the frontal cortex and the parts of the brain responsible for motor function and memory. When cannabinoids hit these receptors, a person starts to feel intoxicated and relaxed as a result [source: Medscape].
As if that one-two punch of psychoactive stimulant and depressant weren’t enough, chocolate also packs another surprise in its glove for people who eat it. Phenylethylamine is often called the “love drug,” since it releases the same chemicals that are introduced into the human body when love comes to call [source: Millward]. The compound produces a similar effect to the one produced by amphetamines, and is classified as a hallucinogen. It also is aces ate releasing the pleasure-producing chemicals dopamine and serotonin. The combination produces an exciting high, much like the one generated by the designer drug ecstasy [source: Hanson, et al].
With all of these wonderful chemical compounds triggering a flood of endorphins and other pleasure-inducing hormones, one can’t help but wonder why people aren’t in the streets bumming change to get a chocolate fix. Which still raises the question: Can chocolate actually get you high?
Chocolate and the Brain
Chocolate has all of the ingredients needed to make it a wonder drug. After all, it contains compounds similar to those found in ecstasy, morphine and marijuana. By all rights, eating a bar of chocolate should send you into orbit. So, why isn’t this stuff regulated by the FDA? Why aren’t chocolate bars sold from locked cabinets behind the pharmacy counter? The truth is, while there are indeed pleasure-inducing and stimulating chemical compounds found in chocolate, the amounts of most of these compounds are relatively small.
As a result of the energy drinks, coffee, cigarettes and, yes, chocolate humans consume these days, our brains have become quite accustomed to the effects of drugs that release pleasure-inducing chemicals. Compounds that act on receptors in the brain that release pleasure-generating neurotransmitters (like dopamine) work in two ways: They either bind to the receptor, causing it to release the neurotransmitters, or they bind to the site to prevent the re-absorption of those neurotransmitters. Either way, there’s a lot more of the chemical floating around in your bloodstream.
This process is how chocolate (or any other substance, for that matter) gets its eater high.It’s also why chocolate doesn’t have much of an effect on us. As the brain is exposed over and over to a barrage of compounds, the number of receptors available for the compounds to bind to actually decreases and the ones that remain are less easily triggered. The reason for this reaction to drugs is the body’s natural state of seeking equilibrium (a balance between all of the processes and chemicals found in the body at any one time). In other words, there’s only supposed to be so much dopamine or other pleasure-producing chemicals in the body. When hormones are released artificially by the compounds found in chocolate or any other drug, the body seeks balance by shutting down the receptors that release the hormones. As a result, we become desensitized to the effects of these compounds over time [source: University of Texas].
Still, there are pharmacological compounds that produce feelings of pleasure and stimulation in human beings. Considering the worldwide fervor for chocolate and the cravings for it that many people experience, it clearly has an effect on some people. Perhaps, one should live a relatively clean life to get all the benefits that chocolate can bestow.
Chocolate and Emotions
Even if the compounds found in chocolate may be too minute for some of us to get a chocolate happy high, the beloved food can still affect our happiness.
Psychologically speaking, happiness — specifically, hedonism — is the goal of our own self-interests. We actively pursue happiness, which is, at its core, pretty selfish. However, we can seek out our own happiness and make others happy at the same time. Charitable giving is a prime example of this: A 2007 study using functional MRI machines showed that acts of giving money to charities activate the reward center in the brain in the same way that it’s activated when we receive money [source: ASRT Scanner].
The category of self-interest that encompasses our pursuit of happiness — hedonism — definitely includes eating chocolate. We gain feelings of pleasure, comfort and gratification from it. The act of eating chocolate is hedonistic; when we eat it, we’re seeking pleasure and alleviating pain, which are the hallmarks of hedonism.
As we’ve seen, measuring the exact effect of chocolate on our happiness can be difficult. Most people, however, believe that such an effect exists. In fact, happiness pills that resemble pharmaceuticals made from chocolate are available for sale. What’s more, one Canadian study examining the link between chocolate and happiness ended with no conclusive results because the control group that received no chocolate ended up raiding the refrigerator where the chocolate used in the study was stored [source: Chan].
While scientists have yet to discover what causes the relationship between chocolate and happiness, studies have managed to turn up correlations. One 2007 study surveyed 1,367 respondents — all men in their 70s with similar socioeconomic backgrounds — and asked questions about their health, satisfaction in life and emotions like happiness and loneliness. They also snuck in a question that asked what kind of candy they preferred. Those who preferred chocolate showed lower frequencies of depression and loneliness and had a more optimistic outlook on life [source: Strandberg, et al].
Even if science never quite figures out what chocolate does to our moods, does it really matter? If eating chocolate makes you happy, go for it.