By Kate Hakala
I am certain that I am a woman. Here’s proof: these two mammary glands, my monthly menstruation and, oh yes, I am utterly addicted to chocolate.
The way I eat chocolate — the way I fiend for it — you’d think there was some Darwinian motivation behind it. Throughout my life, I have always kept a bar in the freezer or surreptitiously brought the chocolate chips back to my bed for a midnight to three a.m. snack. And I’m not alone; the US consumer eats about 12 pounds of chocolate a year.
So, why am I craving the brown stuff almost every day? I know people dub themselves “chocoholics,” but is there any proof that doing cocoa is actually physically addictive? And if we’re chowing down the 3,400-year-old treat like it is going out of style, is it really that bad for us? It seems like I had only heard conflicting reviews of my go-to taste bud charmer, so I wanted to sit the jury down myself and get a verdict once and for all.
Meet Theobroma cacao, chocolate from the tree, in its purest form. Theobroma is Greek for “food of the gods”, and they weren’t lying. What is in this devilish dessert that makes it so heavenly? Chocolate contains a small amount of caffeine but also theobromine, a stimulant closely related to caffeine, that effects us as a mild stimulant, a diuretic, and a muscle relaxant for the bronchi in the lungs. This magic alkaloid also dilates blood vessels and so can be found in medicines prescribed to treat high blood pressure. Add up the stimulation of caffeine, sugar, and theobromine and that explains the get up and go you feel when you eat a chocolate bar.
Your sweet tooth can also help protect you from free radicals. That’s a buzz word that’s been floating around a lot lately. So what’s it mean? Free radical molecules are unstable and seek to bond with more established molecules in the body, causing damage to our DNA. If you breath oxygen, you’re going to be exposed, which can lead to complications like heart disease and possibly cancer. So, as breathers, we are encouraged to eat diets high in fiber and antioxidants to combat them. While mostly present in fruits and vegetables, polyphenols, free radical-fighters, are found in chocolate, and these antioxidants are what give cocoa its notoriously bitter flavor. Studies even show that dark chocolate may have as many antioxidants as highly-touted foods like red wine, tea, and blueberries.
What else can Wonka do for you? Chocolate has been found to be a vasodilator, meaning it reduces blood pressure. Just half an ounce of chocolate a day can give us enough anti-clotting benefits to reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes. It is also an anti-inflammatory, a cough suppressant, mood elevator, and an antibiotic. Oddly enough, when you take out all that added sugar, raw cocoa is pretty good for dental health. Let’s not forget that it tastes so darn good. Humans have learned to not eat things that taste bad to us, which is part of the body’s evolutionary plan of self protection. That’s why melt-in-your-mouth chocolate tastes so good, whereas a puddle of dung might not be so tempting. With the health benefits, flavors, and sensory seductions of chocolate, we can’t help but go back for more.
What’s the catch? Modern chocolate bars are very diluted. Aztecs and Mayans, ancient chocoholics, valiantly drank pure cacao beverages mixed with only water and a few spices, and in comparison, our low concentrated chocolate of today doesn’t hold a candle to their over-proof Nesquik. Today’s bars are mostly milk, fat, and sugar. Sugar rots our teeth, butterfat raises cholesterol, and the milk component can undermine any antioxidants found in your bar. So, what should we be looking for in the candy aisle? Organic dark chocolate bars with not too many ingredients that boast 70-90% cacao seem to be our best, most palatable bet. There is a chocolate hierarchy after all, from best to worst: dark chocolate, milk chocolate, dutched chocolate, mockalate, and white chocolate. I don’t want to sound too Breaking Bad, but the chemistry is more than important.
So, how exactly do we explain chocolate addiction? Our beloved chocolate causes the brain to release endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, enablers of positive thoughts and arousals. These neurochemicals are being triggered by psychoactive nougats found in cocoa including tryptophan, phenylethylamine, tyramine, and cannabinoids, which are fatty acids closely related to THC found in marijuana. Dark chocolate contains the most amount of cocoa solids, so it technically has the greatest dose of psychoactive substances in it. Tests show that self-proclaimed chocolate addicts experience greater blood flow to the orbital frontal cortex and mid brain, which are the same areas stimulated by alcohol and cocaine. And chocoholism may be a personality trait, as those prone to cocoa addiction are more likely to engage in other forms of hedonism like drugs, sex, and smoking.
You know what other food provides these same psychoactive brain-petters? Broccoli. But nobody has ever purchased body broccoli in an attempt to seduce their mate. And kids aren’t being arrested for drug trafficking for splitting a Twix in the cafeteria. That’s because amounts of these compounds are relatively small in any given serving of chocolate. They may even be negligible. A brief feeling of stimulation and alertness might be the only real high you get and that is most likely from the sugar and caffeine exciting your nervous system. Scientists conclude that while chocolate is not essentially physically addictive, the psychological desire to have something society deems as forbidden drives up the demand for it.
Why is chocolate fabled as the lady snack of choice? Studies say that only 15% of men crave chocolate compared to the 40% of women dreaming on Hershey’s. Some daring magazines have even reported women would give up sex sooner than their chocolate habits. This might have to do with socially learned behaviors and stereotypes, but menstruation could be a key ingredient in the craving. Caffeine and magnesium contained in chocolate and the serotonin effect might relieve the feelings of lethargy and magnesium deficiency that women experience during PMS. Men don’t feel these same imbalances, so they are far less likely to need a fix.
The downside is that regular chocolate chomping makes you pack on the pounds, right? You may now begin your slow clap.
Research suggests it might be just the opposite. In a new study, it was found that regular chocolate scarfing correlated with a lower body mass index. Subjects with these coveted lower BMIs did not exercise more or consume less calories than those that were heavier. On average, a subject who ate chocolate five times a week weighed 5-7 pounds less than more ascetic snackers. Don’t go nuts and invest in Cadbury stock. Chocolate may be giving us more mixed messages than an ex going through a dry spell. This study merely linked the frequency of consumption with weight rather than the amount consumed, suggesting that Cocoa Puffs are not a means of obesity prevention. Chocolate lovers may be thinner because they consistently satisfy their cravings in small ways throughout the week, and thus are less likely to go on one massively caloric binge.
Okay, great. So, chocolate consumption can protect against risk of stroke and heart disease, but the sugar and fat content of chocolate is increasing the likelihood of obesity and diabetes, and that is the stuff that is really getting us hooked. It doesn’t help that all of the articles about the great benefits of chocolate picture milk chocolate and other sweet meats we know simply don’t provide the benefits that the darker and lesser highlighted cocoa does.
Poet Fernando Pessoa sums up the confounding cocoa quandary best: “Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth like chocolate”. We chocoholics must keep on fighting the good fight, forging beyond possible acne outbreaks, weight gain, and even imminent chocolate shortages due to crop disease. What all this research tells me is that the “good fight” is located in a few squares a week of anti-oxidant rich, heart-healthier organic dark chocolate, preferably with a few sit ups squeezed in between serotonin highs.
ExpliKate is a column running on Kate-book.com every other Monday at noon. It is written by the hyper-inquisitive Kate Hakala, who seeks to answer questions ranging from “What is kombucha?” to what you read above. Follow her on Twitter @explikateme.