Chocolate is one of those things that seems simple at first, but the more you study it, the more complex and interesting it becomes. There are good reasons that it has basically taken over the world as the global treat that has become an integral part of almost every holiday and tradition. It’s a lucrative business, too. More than $100B is spent on chocolate every year!
What is it about chocolate that makes it so irresistible? The answer can be found in the complex layers that make chocolate the special thing that it is. The first layer is in the way it tastes; the next layer is the specific way the ingredients are prepared and carefully added together. Finally, the innermost layer is in the molecules that make up those ingredients. All of these elements come together to spark an enjoyable, sort of addictive, and even mood-altering experience in the lucky person eating the treat.
It all comes down to chemistry. So today we are going to go a little deeper into the science of the amazing treat that we all know and love and answer some questions that many people wonder about.
Can Chocolate Make You Happy?
Chocolate is a complex substance that contains more than 800 compounds in each square. One of the most studied of those is theobromine.
Theobromine is an alkaloid, which means that it is a family of compounds that many plants produce, including the cacao plant. As far as we know, chocolate is the richest natural source of theobromine, however, other delicious (and addictive) consumables like coffee and tea contain some of it too. On the chemical side of things, theobromine resembles caffeine and stimulates our brains in a similar way.
As most of us know, chocolate also contains caffeine, making it a double whammy of high vibrating foods. It is this combination of theobromine and caffeine that is believed to create that small rush of happiness, joy, and zing we feel after eating it. The effect is, generally speaking, somewhat minimal, but it can give a person a happy buzz after consuming it, and there’s nothing wrong with that!
What Other Compounds Are in Chocolate?
As mentioned, chocolate contains hundreds of chemical compounds, some of which react within the human brain to alter mood. These include:
We’ve already mentioned this one but for a little more detail… Theobromine is a bitter chemical that has a complex effect on the body. It begins to widen blood vessels, stimulate the heart, and can even act as a mild diuretic.
Finally, something we are all familiar with! Caffeine is also a bitter chemical with similar structure to theobromine. Most of us know what happens when we drink coffee in the morning – in fact it’s why many of us basically need it when we wake up – it is a stimulant in several different areas of our bodies. It also contains small anti-inflammatory properties.
Cannabinoid Receptor Activators
Chocolate contains three compounds which stimulate the production of anandamide. Anandamide binds to and activates cannabinoid receptors and has been called the “bliss receptor.” The word “anandamide” originates from the sanskrit “ananda,” which roughly translates to “bliss” or “joy.”
Phenylethylamine is a chemical that stimulates the brain’s pleasure centres and which is released when we fall in love. Maybe you can guess which food contains the highest concentrations of phenylethylamine? Chocolate, of course. Most of the phenylethylamine derived from chocolate is metabolised before it reaches our central nervous system so the effects are minimal, but still, it makes the perfect gift on Valentine’s Day!
Cacao also contains magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron. These essential minerals are usually present in small amounts, but they add up when you’re consuming chocolate with high cacao percentage, and they contribute to a person’s overall health and well-being.
Raw cacao beans also have high levels of antioxidants such as epicatechin and gallic acid – though you might not find high levels in heavily processed chocolate bars from the store. So if you are looking to really enjoy the health benefits of chocolate, it’s best to find high quality chocolates that have gone through minimal processing and have few added ingredients.
Finally… there’s something we really need to ask. What actually is chocolate?
Ok – this question seems laughably basic. But have you ever stopped to wonder what really goes into chocolate? What makes something technically chocolate, and something else chocolate-ish? Technically, chocolate is a confectionery product characterised by the presence of cocoa bean derivatives, specifically cocoa liquor, cocoa butter and cocoa solids.
Again, it’s all in the chemistry and proportions of the ingredients, which affect the composition, the taste, and the way the treat makes us feel. The percentage of the components listed above may be very different between two products that are both labeled and sold as chocolate.
If you’ve ever stopped to look at the grocery store, you’ll notice that chocolate can come in a variety of forms. It can be solid, a liquid, or a paste. And usually the ingredients added to the cocoa solids and cocoa butter contain some variety of added sweetener like sugar or condensed milk, which offsets the bitter taste of cocoa. Other varieties of chocolate might also include added flavours, preservatives, milk solids and modifiers.
What’s interesting is that many of the original compounds found in chocolate are bitter, which, thanks to evolution, the brain associates with poison. Sugar balances out those flavors, allowing the brain to actually enjoy chocolate’s complex deliciousness.
There is so much more to chocolate than we have the room for here, in fact some people dedicate their whole lives to researching and revealing chocolate’s hidden molecular complexities. But the simple truth is that chocolate is delicious, and we hope you get the chance to enjoy some soon!