“Strength is the capacity to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands – and then eat just one of the pieces.” – Judith Viorst
Chocolate has been the food of indulgence since its arrival in Europe in the 16th century. Since then chocolate has taken a multitude of forms as candy, an additive, a drink, and as a topping for various dishes. Everyone has heard of chocolate’s putative magical properties as an aphrodisiac, health supplement, and ability to raise one’s mood. According to studies conducted in the 1990’s chocolate is the most commonly craved food in North America (Bruinsma).
The simplified process to create chocolate is as follows: Cacoa beans from the cacao tree are fermented and dried mixed with cocoa butter (or milk) and sugar to produce chocolate. Depending on the cocoa butter content and amount of sugar added, chocolate can have varying degrees of bitterness. Some people are self-proclaimed Chocoholics and claim they have an addiction to chocolate. If addiction can be described a compulsive dependence on a substance, especially if it is bodily, can chocoholism qualify as an addiction? Chocoholics experience periods of craving potentially due to endogenous hormonal changes, nutrient desires, or depression. Desire for chocolate may stem from it’s fat and sugary content. A chocoholic is more likely to mistaking their desire for chocolate with low blood-sugar or a need for carbohydrates. Consumed chocolate has shown to lead to a rise of opioids released in the brain. Released opioids in the hypothalamus lead to an anglesic effect in the body, or a sensation of relief from pain. Conversely, chocolate contains compounds that mimic the effects of neurotransmitters in the sympathetic nervous system, specifically tyramine and phenylethylamine. Mood improvement could be due to activation of the sympathetic nervous system due to these compounds, or could be due to blood sugar levels rising.
Chocolate may also be eaten due an involuntary desire for Magnesium. Magnesium deficiencies have been correlated to a decrease of dopamine in the central nervous system leading to a higher chance of being dissatisfied. However, the most likely reason we eat chocolate is because of our innate desire for calorie-rich substances. Additionally, Chocolate may also lead to a release of dopamine in the mesolimbic dopaminergic system, generally associated with mood and appetite regulation. Also, the mesolimbic dopaminergic system is also associated with the reward system and addiction.
Claims of chocolate acting as an antidepressant and ability to raise mood levels is due to a number of factors outlined above. Nutrients and compounds in the chocolate combined with the psychological state of the consumer all contribute to the “addictiveness” of chocolate. Keeping the above findings in mind, it is important to remember that we, humans, will always look for the health benefits to something that agrees with our palette. While chocolate is one of the greatest foods to have graced humanity (in my opinion) and can be beneficial in moderation, chocoholism can cannot qualify as an addiction as their appears to be other endogenous and environmental factors that contribute to these regular cravings.
Bruinsma, K., Taren L. D. (1999). Chocolate: Food or Drug. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 99, 1249-1256.
Parker, G., Parker I., Brotchie, H. (2006) Review, Mood state effects of chocolateJournal of Affective Disorders, 92, 149-159.