How to start an article about chocolate? There are so many different aspects to this delicacy that are worthy of the honour of being mentioned first. I guess you should begin by explaining the origins of such a powerful word that the mere mention of it makes you salivate. This is a debated topic; did it come from the Mayans or the Aztecs? Both cultures have been using cocoa and its derivatives since their very existence, its presence was found in pottery dating back to 11000 BC, decades before these civilisations were formed. The Aztecs of Mexico named the bitter and spicy drink they made “xocolatl” in their native tongue of Nahuatl. It’s a combination of the two words meaning bitter (xocolli) and water (atl). It is debated whether “xocolatl” evolved into the modern word chocolate because of the Mayan word for this substance, “chocol” or if it was naturally deformed with use. We shall probably never know the real origin of the word but frankly this is not your main concern as you let a piece of chocolate gently melt on your tongue.
Chocolate is native to subtropical countries where its raw state, the cocoa bean, is found in large melon-shaped pods growing on 40-60 foot tall trees. It is botanically known as Theobroma cacao, or “food of the gods”. This is probably due to Mayan and Aztec dogma that associated chocolate with the god of fertility. After a growth period of 5-6 months, the pods are harvested and the beans are extracted, fermented for 5-7days and dried in the sun. They are then sent to the processing plant where they are cleaned, roasted and ground to produce chocolate liquor; a blend of pale-yellow oil released by the bean that is referred to as cocoa butter and the remaining solid part, cocoa powder. By adding sugar and vanilla extract, you can make a dark chocolate bar or by removing the cocoa powder, you make white chocolate. Before chocolate was made into a bar it was used solely as a drink. It was nothing like our hot chocolate made from a mix or syrup, it was a bitter and spicy drink that was flavoured with vanilla, chile pepper and annatto (a South-American bush with a nutmeg like scent).
So, we’ve figured out how it’s made, but what makes it so irresistibly good? As for many things, the answer lies within or more precisely in the chemical composition of chocolate. Multiple compounds found in chocolate have physiological effects on our body, the most studied molecules are: theobromine, phenethylamine and anandamide.
Theobromine is a stimulant much like caffeine and is thought to fight fatigue. Rumour has it that it was used by the Spanish army during their conquest of Central and South America. This compound comes from cacao and therefore is not present in cheap chocolate imitations. Attention all animal lovers, chocolate should not be given to pets. Cats, dogs, horses, parrots and small rodents are unable to metabolise this chemical, it can remain in their blood stream for up to 20hrs and can cause heart palpitations, heart attacks and epileptic seizures. Prolonged exposition will eventually cause death. If ingestion occurs, medical attention should be sought and vomiting should be induced within two hours.
Like the previous molecule, phenethylamine is an alkaloid similar to the natural occurring dopamine (a molecule generally associated to rewarding experiences like food and sex). In the case of chocolate consumption, the reward is doubled as the compound present in the morsel combines with the body’s dopamine to produce a mild anti-depressant effect or in other words creates a sense of well being. It has also been linked to an increase in serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is linked to regulation of anger and aggressive behaviour, so an increase of this molecule in your body makes you a happier person.
Anandamide is a recently discovered messenger molecule that plays an active role in pain, depression, appetite, memory and fertility. Interestingly, its name comes from the Sanskrit word “ananda” meaning “bliss”. The effects of this molecule on the body are similar to that of morphine or THC (the active ingredient in Cannabis). The interest in this molecule began in 1988 when scientists discovered the specific receptors for THC. Since it is not naturally found in the body, this led to believe in the existence of an unknown natural “bliss molecule”. Anandamide was then isolated by an Israeli scientist by the name of Raphael Mechoulam in 1992. Chocolate can be considered a legal and inexpensive way to feel a pleasurable “high”. However, this “high” is short lived as the body limits the effects of this molecule, an evolutionary adaptation to keep you focused.
In addition to these active compounds, the high fat and sugar content causes the blood vessels to expand and blood sugar levels to rise bringing on the rapid production of serotonin which crashes rapidly when the chocolate intake stops causing an addictive response in pursuit of an elevated serotonin level and sensation of well being.
This next piece of information might just come in handy in times of feminine crisis and should be kept in mind for future reference. The properties of chocolate make it the perfect food to palliate the effects of PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome, 7-14 days before a women begins her period) as it reduces the effect of the hormonal changes taking place during this time that cause the blood glucose and serotonin levels to drop dramatically causing mood swings and unexplainable bursts of rage against the world.
Although we might never know the best way to start an article about chocolate, we now know that it may not be such a horrifying junk food after all since it helps keep you feeling happy and if eaten in moderation can contribute to lowering your blood pressure. A final message of caution, the desirable properties of chocolate are weakened if too many other extra ingredients are added to it, choose chocolate that has a high percentage of cocoa powder and a small list of ingredients.