Chocolates and Chemistry

research on chocolate

Image credit: kingston.ac.uk

Today the scientists have been able to identify more than 300 of the chemicals found in chocolate. The most famous ones are theobromine, caffeine, serotonin, histamine, anandamide phenethylamine, spermidine and an antioxidant know as epicatechin. Exactly how all these chemicals affect our body and how they work together is still largely unknown. Some people seem to be more sensitive to ‘the chocolate effect’ than others and experience an alleviated mood after just a few bites of dark, high quality chocolate rich in theobromine, phenylethylamine and anandamide. A lot of women report irresistible cravings for chocolate during certain phases of their menstrual cycle, while others report indulging in vast chocolate eating during pregnancy. The remarkable thing about these cravings is that other products crammed with sugar and fat – such as cakes, pies or even white chocolate –don’t seem to do the trick. These women aren’t simply craving calories or a sugar high, they are craving chocolate.

When you let praline made from dark, high quality chocolate melt on your tough you are actually providing your body with thousands of theobromine molecules. The theobromine molecule derives its name from the cocoa bean tree – Theobroma cacao. Chemically, theobromine belongs to the methylxanthines family, a family that also includes the more well-known members called caffeine and theophylline, found in coffee and tea. Theobromine increases our alertness and relaxes the smooth muscles of the bronchi. It will also dilate the blood vessels and increase the urine production, and cocoa beans have therefore been used by traditional folk medicine to treat high blood pressure and bloating. The cocoa bean also contains a chemical closely related to theobromine – the caffeine molecule. The caffeine content in chocolate is however much smaller than that in coffee or tea.

One of the other interesting substances found in chocolate is Phenylethylamine, a trace amine capable of releasing dopamine in the mesolimbic pleasure-centres found in your brains. Phenylethylamine is a naturally occurring substance in your bodies, but it is also found in high amounts in the cocoa bean. Scientist have been able to establish that Phenylethylamine plays an imperative role when we fall in love and experience passion, and that the phenylethylamine levels in our bodies will sky rocket during an orgasm.

Cocoa beans are also remarkably rich in flavonoids, a kind of antioxidant. Flavonoids are also found in green tea and are believed to prevent cardiovascular disease, since flavonoids are capable of reducing blood clotting and ease blood-vessel constriction. Even just a few chocolate pralines – weighing no more than 40-gram (1.4 once) together – have measurable effects on your body.

So, can chocolate actually have mood altering affects? Well, apart from the stimulating theobromine and the ‘love-chemical’ known as phenylethylamine, chocolate also comes with its very own cannabinoid – the anandamide. Cannabinoids are also found in several other psychoactive plants such as cannabis sativa , the plant from which the illegal drug known as Marijuana is made. Anandamide is however many times weaker than tetra-hydro-cannabinol, the cannabinoid found in cannabis sativa. Anandamide is also an extremely targeted substance, since it can be produced by our own bodies as well. Compared to anandamide, the cannabinoid found in cannabis sativahave a very blunt and broad affect on the body. This also means that the affects of tetra-hydro-cannabinol are very dangerous and unpredictable, compared to those caused by its smart and targeted chocolate-dwelling cousin.

Finally, we would also like to mention the ‘fat and sugar’- effect. In comparison to many other kinds of candy, such as pastilles or marshmallows, chocolate candy is very rich in sugar as well as in fat. This combination has been shown to have a remarkable affect on our mood and can create a burst of endorphins and serotonin in our brains. Endorphin and serotonin are naturally occurring substances in our brains, where they are responsible for producing feelings of pleasure and relieve feelings of pain and anxiety. Of course, eating to much sugar and fat is not healthy for us, but small amounts can actually have a positive effect on our mood. Interestingly enough, chocolate also seem to work in much smaller amounts than other kinds of food, equally rich in fat and sugar. The scientists believe this might have to do with the other psychoactive substances found in the cocoa bean intensifying the effect, and particularly phenylethylamine is suspected to play a vital role here.