It’s been eaten, drunk, worshipped and fought over; used as currency, body paint, and a (delicious) disguise for poison. What is it about chocolate that keeps us coming back for seconds (and thirds, and fourths)?
Women the world over have known it for ages – chocolate makes us happy. Those little brown blocks of delight, placed on the tongue and slowly savoured (or, if you’re like me, munched greedily to get an instant, heady hit), are the culinary equivalent of multiple orgasms.
The product of the cacao tree has been winning fans since Aztec leader Montezuma introduced the beverage (chocolate candy as we know it didn’t appear until the 1800s) to the Spanish conqueror Cortez, who subsequently took it home to Spain. While the original drink was rather bitter, the Spanish made a few creative innovations, using sugar instead of chillies, and adding cinnamon and vanilla. Yum.
So when science finally caught up with us and proved that chocolate really does make us happy – it triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s happy-making hormone – women were not particularly surprised, merely amused that there had ever been any doubt.
But there are plenty of other foods out there that have far more powerful endorphin-releasing effects. What exactly is it about chocolate that keeps us coming back for more? The taste, of course – the smooth, dark, earthy flavour of cacao fat mixed with sugar and a few other ingredients – but it certainly possesses a less-easy-to-define addictive quality. No one can deny that chocolate is the most widely and frequently craved food.
Substances present in chocolate which have been highlighted as pharmacologically significant include serotonin, tryptophan, phenylethylamine, tyramine and cannabinoids (happy-making compounds, to you and me). It also contains caffeine, which certainly has a mildly addictive quality – just ask any coffee junkie. The theory that these make chocolate addictive, though, is somewhat flawed, since the most widely consumed form of cacao is milk chocolate – if we were truly after the ‘hit’ that chocolate provides, we’d be far more interested in dark chocolate.
Some suggest that our liking for chocolate and its effects on mood have far more to do with its sugar and fat content, and their related sensory and nutritional effects, in combination with the endorphin boost that cacao provides.
The health benefits of dark chocolate (chocolate that has 70% cacao or higher) are not to be underestimated though. Because it is made from plants, it contains many of the health benefits of dark green vegetables. These benefits are from flavonoids, which act as antioxidants that protect the body from ageing caused by free radicals. Dark chocolate contains nearly eight times the amount of antioxidants found in strawberries. Flavonoids also help relax blood pressure through the production of nitric oxide, and balance certain hormones in the body.
If that wasn’t enough, dark choc is good for your heart. A few blocks a day can help keep your heart and cardiovascular system running smoothly, firstly by lowering blood pressure, and secondly by lowering cholesterol (dark chocolate has also been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol – the bad kind – by up to 10 percent).
As if you needed an excuse to eat it…