Did you know that the average American eats about 11 pounds of chocolate a year? And women consume far more than men, although men report liking it almost as much as women do. We read a lot about chocolate’s almost magical qualities, such as it triggering a dopamine release, but is it all true? What is it about chocolate, other than its physical attributes such as taste, mouthfeel and appearance that makes us - and especially women - love it so much?
Chocolate has several substances that we don’t taste and wouldn’t describe with the words often used to describe chocolate. These chemical compounds are theobromine, phenylethylamine, caffeine, anandamide, and epicatechin, and they are just a few of the more than 800 chemical compounds in chocolate. These five all are cited in many news sources as being partly responsible for why we like chocolate. I did a deep dive into research on each of these substances, and found that the studies that seem the most sound indicate that theobromine and epicatechin are the two compounds whose effects we might actually feel when we eat chocolate.
Theobromine. This compound is similar to caffeine, but its effects are milder and longer-lasting. Chocolate is the richest natural source of theobromine (coffee and tea have some also). As a psychoactive substance, it gives us energy and boosts our mood and alertness without making us feel jittery the way we do when we drink too much coffee. It is high in antioxidants but it also lowers blood pressure while increasing blood flow to the brain.
Epicatechin. Research shows that this compound also increases cerebral blood flow, which might make us feel more alert. It also helps with memory, executive function, and processing speed in older (aged 50 plus) adults. Epicatechin’s benefits are statistically significant when one consumes about 2.5 ounces of 70% dark chocolate a day for 28 days or more. OK, that’s a lot of chocolate, but not totally outside the realm of possibility. As long as one also increases daily exercise, what a pleasant way to improve brain health!
Phenylethylamine. This compound, also known as PEA, is the one that people are referring to when they talk about chocolate being an aphrodisiac. It is naturally occurring in the brain where it causes brain cells to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. Sadly, when it comes in the form of chocolate, our bodies break it down in the digestion process before it can reach our brains, so it doesn’t actually influence our mood.
Anandamide, which is found naturally in the brain, is similar to the anandamide THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) found in marijuana. There is a study suggesting that anandamide in chocolate remains stable longer than it does when it is in other substances, possibly meaning that it could boost our mood. However, the skeptical reader will notice that the amount we would need to consume is unrealistic.
Caffeine. Chocolate has about 12 mg of caffeine in a one ounce serving, which isn’t nothing. But when compared to coffee, which has about 95 mg of caffeine in an 8 ounce cup, the stimulating effect is mild.
So, back to the question of why we want chocolate to celebrate Mother’s Day, Valentine's Day, or just the sun coming up again! Yes, theobromine and epicatechin can take some of the credit. But I think it’s mostly the dark, rich, velvety, intensely flavorful, sweet lusciousness that keeps us wanting more.