For anyone like me who has indulged in one too many chocolate eggs over the Easter holiday, this post is dedicated to you. There’s just something about chocolate that makes it call out your name, whispering sweet promises of its rich creamy taste, soft velvety texture and power to bring a smile to your lips . . .
It’s no wonder chocolate has become the go to gift for ‘gifting for business’, for events and conferences and for sharing with those you network with.
But what is about chocolate that makes us feel so good? In this article, I explore the chemistry of chocolate and subconscious drivers of pleasure.
All the ingredients of a wonder drug
Far from being just milk, sugar and cocoa, chocolate has over 300 compounds that can boost your mood, energy and libido. Here are just a few of those key chocolate compounds:
- Serotonin – known as an anti-depressant, Serotonin plays a big role in regulating your mood. Tryptophan (found in chocolate) is one of the chemicals triggering the release of Serotonin.
- Endorphins – give us that feeling of euphoria or elation as well as reducing feelings of pain and stress. Endorphins are also what create a runners high and I’m reminded of that famous quote by Charles M. Schulz “Exercise is a dirty word. Every time I hear it I wash my mouth out with chocolate.”
- Phenylethylamine or PEA – promotes feelings of attraction, excitement and nervousness. PEA is also created in the brain and released when we are in love so it’s no wonder that chocolate has become synonymous with romance and being the way to a woman’s heart.
- Caffeine – the most popular psychoactive drug in the world. Caffeine stimulates the nervous system by affecting two chemicals called dopamine and adenosine. By increasing dopamine it stimulates our reward system, triggering the release of pleasurable chemicals and motivating us to repeat this activity again. By making the body less sensitive to adenosine, it speeds up neural activity and triggers the release of extra energy.
- Flavonoids (an antioxidant) – claimed to help prevent cancers, protect blood vessels, promote cardiac health, and counteract high blood pressure. The highest concentrations are found in high cocoa content chocolate and raw cacao. Raw cacao in particular has many health benefits, containing vital vitamins and minerals including magnesium, calcium, vitamins E and B and essential healthy fats (oleic acid).
- My favourite raw chocolate comes from the Women Unlimited community with the inspirational Galia from Choc Chic fame. I recently sampled her delicious raw chocolate at the Women Unlimited Thrive conference and can testify to becoming a raw chocolate convert!
And as it that wasn’t all enough, chocolate even contains a compound closely related to the active ingredient in marijuana!
So, you’d be right to ask “if chocolate has this many wonder chemicals, why isn’t chocolate sold on prescription? And should our consumption be regulated?”
The sweet placebo
While chocolate does contain these pleasure-inducing and stimulating chemical compounds, it contains them in relatively small quantities. In addition, our bodies have become accustomed to the intake of such chemicals through our modern diets of energy drinks, coffee, cigarettes etc. As such, they have much less effect than they once would have had on our ancestors.
Interestingly, scientists at Cambridge University carried out brain scans that suggested pleasurable sensations from chocolate are more to do with taste and the actual act of eating it than from any psycho-active chemicals. The mood enhancing effects of eating chocolate appear to be psychological more so than pharmacological.
Dr Owen, who works at the Cambridge University’s Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre, said:
“An alternative explanation is that the effects of eating chocolate are psychological – the unique combination of aroma, texture and taste makes eating chocolate a pleasurable experience that stimulates the emotional ‘feel-good’ centres of the brain. In short, the chocolate tastes good, so we feel good.”
I would also suggest that the effect of eating chocolate is closely linked to nostalgia and childhood. Food preferences and our sense of liking and disliking is shaped at an early age. Chocolate is nearly always associated with a reward or celebration, thereby linking it to emotive memories of happy times.
However, while the research showed the chemical effect of chocolate on mood was less than the psychological effect, it confirmed the intense positive emotion that eating chocolate evokes. The scientists claimed that eating chocolate induces sensations that could be even more pleasurable than listening to your favourite music, winning the lottery, or falling in love. It sounds like a line from Bridget Jones’ diary!
The real route to happiness
Psychologically speaking, the happiness we get from chocolate falls under the category of hedonism – self-serving pleasure. And, it falls victim to a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation, i.e. with each additional mouthful of chocolate, the perceived pleasure diminishes as we adapt to the taste. The pleasurable effects of chocolate are therefore short-lived.
However, fear not! There is a way to prolong your feelings of happiness through chocolate but it might mean giving away your last Rollo. . . The greatest happiness comes from sharing experiences with friends and from giving gifts to others.
So at the end of all this self-discovery into chocolate, we’ve ended up at one of life’s biggest lessons; happiness is not so much in having as sharing, whether it’s with family, friends, clients or our business network. We may experience pleasure from what we accumulate and consume, but we make our lives meaningful by what we give.
And, as Linda Grayson from the Pickwick Papers said, “there’s nothing better than a good friend, except a good friend with chocolate.”