NECC Professor Explores the Science of Chocolate – As February approaches, many look forward to presenting their sweethearts with sweet chocolate hearts. Long before Richard Cadbury sold his first heart-shaped box in 1861, the stuff has been associated with the amorous; the ancient Aztecs lauded their fermented cacao beverage as an aphrodisiac.
Others may savor their squares on their own this Valentine’s Day, or in the company of a few close friends, perhaps in an effort to slightly soothe the sting of lost love(s). No matter how we connect with chocolate at one time or another, the bond can run deep.
According to Mike Cross, a chemistry professor at Northern Essex Community College and a chocolate aficionado, there’s some science behind this two-faced love affair people have with their chocolate. It largely comes down to the bioactive compounds contained within the cacao, aka the good stuff that’s in the beans (a misnomer for the seeds of the cacao tree) long before they reach bar or box.
When asked if heartbreak-induced chocolate cravings stem from a chemical withdrawal, Cross offers a strong maybe. There’s tryptophan: “That’s the raw material for serotonin; that’s produced in our brain when we’re in love,” Cross says. PEA (phenethylamine): “It’s produced when we’re first attracted to somebody,” he says. “When we’re no longer in love with someone, it makes sense that our brains would seek after those chemicals.” Chocolate also has anandamide: “It comes from the Sanskrit word for bliss,” Cross says. “It’ll give us a little bit of a euphoric feeling, even if it’s not nearly enough to overcome all the heartbreak.”
Cross says these three are included in the combination of chemicals that may make chocolate so choice for the heartsick. “Ground beef has huge amounts of tryptophan in it, chocolate won’t have as much,” Cross says. “But you don’t hear of a lot of people going and having a Big Mac after a bad breakup. So it’s probably a combination of chemicals that we’re looking for.”
According to Cross, the anandamide in chocolate is the same chemical that’s responsible for runner’s high, and it interacts with the same receptors as the THC in marijuana. But the bliss, by necessity, will always be much more subdued. “You’d have to eat about 25 pounds of chocolate in one sitting to get the same effect as smoking a joint,” he says. Based on my own reading, 25 pounds is also the amount you’d have to eat to die from an overdose of theobromine, the substance in chocolate that can prove lethal for pets.
Cross says theobromine acts as a mild stimulant in humans, behaving in a way that’s similar to caffeine, but to a milder extent. It binds to adenosine receptors and discourages them from sending out their pesky messages of drowsiness. “We’ve all experienced what happens with caffeine, where your energy levels spike and then crash. Theobromine is more of a really low-level buzz,” Cross says.
Now, chocolate does contain some caffeine, but not as much as is commonly believed, Cross says. “Even on the Coca-Cola website, if you go to their caffeine estimator and put in ‘chocolate,’ they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, very high in caffeine. Really, it’s high in theobromine. It may have trace amounts of caffeine, but not large amounts.”
That theobromine also acts as a natural cough suppressant, Cross says. It can help to open up the airways. “Don’t forget your asthma inhaler. You can’t just grab a chocolate bar instead. But it does definitely help a bit with throat irritation, and it tastes good, much better than some of those nasty cough drops,” he says.
In addition to the theobromine/caffeine confusion, Cross says many believe that chocolate can trigger migraines, though the science suggests otherwise. “The vast majority of studies show that if people don’t know what they’re eating — you can feed them cocoa powder in little gel caps — there’s no correlation with frequency, severity or duration of migraines,” he says. Cross says the anecdotes likely stem from the fact that migraines can be brought on by hormonal fluctuations and stress. Chocolate cravings can also be connected to those, and people may falsely attribute their migraines to the external factor of chocolate consumption, instead of the internal sea changes.
If you’re going to indulge in something, chocolate’s not a bad choice.
So what about some serious health and performance perks to ease the twinges of guilt some may feel about indulging?
Well, Cross first cites an Italian study of men with high blood pressure. After consuming 100 grams of dark chocolate per day for two weeks — “That’s like a whole Lindt bar,” he says — they had significantly lower blood pressure. He says the good parts of cacao hav also been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, temporarily improve blood flow to the brain and corneas — thus boosting academic test performance and vision — and slow the onset of sunburn when eaten regularly.
Cross says this internal sunscreen is the result of antioxidants called flavanols flooding our cells. It’s the same way regular flavanol consumption can help prevent cancer: The antioxidants hang around for a while, defending cells against DNA damage. “The sweet spot, pardon the pun, is about 30 grams a day. Which is, maybe, five Hershey’s Kisses,” Cross says. He says this rule is an ideal way to balance the beneficial compounds with the fat and sugar content. However, the benefits are all in the cocoa, not the additives, so Cross says those who can tolerate adding plain cocoa powder to their healthy snacks might want to do so.
Overall, Cross is of the mind that his advice should be taken with a small grain of salt, and that’s also how he likes his chocolate: sea-salted (though he recommends that those seeking the blood pressure-lowering effects remain wary of salt). His verdict on the beloved substance is that people should balance enjoyment with nutrition. “If you’re going to indulge in something,” Cross says, “chocolate’s not a bad choice. I don’t think it should be like taking medicine, where you have to choke down some cod-liver oil and then two squares of 99% dark chocolate. Try what you like, but then maybe try increasing the cocoa content slowly.”
As for those who may have a more toxic love affair with chocolate, neither the writer nor the scientist can offer words of judgment. Cross once spoke to a woman who was so allergic to chocolate that it gave her blisters in her mouth and throat. She concluded with, “I still eat it sometimes.”