While health in food is often tied to physical well-being, for chocolate, a considerable share of consumers thinks of emotional well-being. Chocolate purchases are often impulsive, and research shows this to be particularly true for women, but do you ever wonder why chocolate makes us feel so good? There is a reason chocolate is sometimes called the ‘happiness drug’, and it’s not to do with marketing. Chocolate contains numerous ingredients, chemicals, and compounds that have been shown to affect the brain and body in a myriad of ways, most of them pleasurable and positive.
Theobromine is an alkaloid common in the plant world. It’s found in varying amounts in tea, coffee, and the kola nut, though chocolate is the richest known source. The name comes from the cacao tree—Theobroma. Theobromine is chemically similar to caffeine and has many of the same stimulant effects on the human brain when given in equal doses. This contributes to that well-known lift you get from eating chocolate.
Anandamide is found in chocolate in small quantities and it helps to stimulate and open synapses in the brain, which allows feel good waves to transmit more readily. While anandamide affects the same structures of the brain as THC (the active ingredient in cannabis), you would need to eat pounds of chocolate to have a similar effect.
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that, once consumed provides a burst of energy, while also activating the reward centre of the brain. Most chocolate bars contain a fair amount of sugar—dark chocolate generally has around 30 per cent and milk chocolate upwards of 50-60 per cent. When these high levels of sugar are combined with chocolate’s other enticing chemical and physical properties, happy feelings are produced in the eater, so it’s no wonder our bodies and brains crave it.
Recent studies have shown that cocoa or dark chocolate have potent health benefits. Dark chocolate is full of the flavonoids which are antioxidants that help protect blood vessels, promote cardiac health, and may even help prevent cancer. It also has been effectively demonstrated to counteract mild hypertension. In fact, dark chocolate has more flavonoids than any other antioxidant-rich food such as red wine, green and black tea, and blueberries.
The benefits of chocolate need to be weighed against its potentially unhealthy aspects however—namely its high caloric intake thanks to its percentage of fat and sugar, and the fact that it’s easy to eat more than the recommended daily amount. As with most things, it’s moderation that’s the key. So, the next time you reach for a treat, remember to thank not only the skilled chocolatiers but also the incredible science of chemistry for helping to create the delicious wonder that is chocolate!