Why we love chocolate

PLEASURE POTENTIAL: Chocolate may not go straight to the groin, but it does have genuine health benefits.
PLEASURE POTENTIAL: Chocolate may not go straight to the groin, but it does have genuine health benefits.

While we indulge in our annual chocolate overload, Paul Martin explores its addictive qualities and whether it really is an aphrodisiac.

Why do we love chocolate so much? Its immediate appeal obviously hinges on the combination of rich flavours and sensual texture.

Real chocolate melts at around body temperature, unleashing the complex flavours and  aromas of several hundred chemical  components of cacao.

The flavours released by good chocolate can take several minutes to unfurl and develop fully.

Chewing it curtails this process, rather like gulping good wine without pausing to savour it.

The way to realise the full pleasure- giving potential of quality chocolate is to let it dissolve slowly in your mouth.

Aficionados exhale through the nose, to maximise their appreciation of the bouquet, but you might find this makes you giggle. The simple advice is: suck, don't chew.

We can enjoy the smooth texture and mellow flavour of chocolate to their best effect thanks to a Swiss chocolatier named Rodolphe Lindt who, in the late 19th century, developed the production technique known as conching, so called because the machine resembled in shape a giant conch shell. Conching entails rolling and smearing the molten chocolate while subjecting it to a stream of warm air.

This blends the ingredients and releases unwanted volatile components. Serious chocolate undergoes several days of conching before it is ready. Before the invention of conching, chocolate was grainy and bitter.

Chocolate injects a dose of well- being into almost any occasion. Even pregnancy can benefit. Researchers at the University of Helsinki found that pregnant women who ate chocolate every day felt more positive and less stressed, both during pregnancy and six months after giving birth. The chocolate-eating mothers also made more positive assessments of their six- month-old offspring, probably because they felt more relaxed themselves.

Eating pleasant-tasting food of any sort can lift mood, and chocolate is one of the best at doing this. Its lasting associations with the better bits of childhood probably reinforce these pleasures. But at least some small fraction of its visceral appeal lies in its psychoactive constituents. Chocolate contains a number of substances with mild psychoactive properties. Foremost among these are the stimulants caffeine and its close chemical relative, theobromine.

A cup of cocoa may contain up to 25mg of caffeine, about a third as much as a cup of instant coffee.

Properly conducted laboratory experiments, of the doubleblind, placebo-controlled variety, have demonstrated that the quantities of caffeine and theobromine contained in 50g of dark chocolate are sufficient to produce measurable improvements in people's reaction times, their ability to process visual information and their subjective feeling of energy.

White chocolate, which contains little or no cacao solids, has no such effect. Another substance found in chocolate is the element magnesium. According to one speculative hypothesis, chocolate might make some individuals feel better in the long run by correcting a magnesium deficiency in their diet.

Chocolate contains tiny amounts of a psychoactive substance called anandamide, which also happens to be one of the neurotransmitters used within the brain for signalling between nerve cells. Anandamide activates the same type of receptors in the brain that respond to cannabis.

This might account for the widespread belief among cannabis users that chocolate enhances the effects of their drug - although it has to be said that the amounts of anandamide in chocolate are so small as to make this doubtful.

Despite being a pleasurable pick- me-up, chocolate is not the reliable antidepressant that some devotees claim it to be.

Eating chocolate engenders different emotional responses, ranging from unalloyed pleasure to extreme guilt. After reviewing the evidence, one group of academics concluded that chocolate is not very effective at alleviating low mood or depression, beyond the short-lived fix of pleasure. In fact, individuals who eat chocolate with the specific aim of lifting their mood may end up worse off, prolonging their gloom.

This could also have something to do with the fact that people who eat chocolate for emotional comfort usually turn to milk chocolate, which contains smaller concentrations of the key ingredients.

Is chocolate an aphrodisiac? The case is intriguing but unproven. Chocolate's sensual, hedonistic connotations undoubtedly make it a suitable companion for sex.

Simply believing in its aphrodisiac powers should be enough to get the juices flowing, regardless of any real pharmacological effects.

The mild buzz from the caffeine and theobromine might help a little as well. Furthermore, research has uncovered a few tantalising hints that chocolate might indeed assist life below the waist. When scientists studied the sexual and eating habits of Italian women, they discovered that women who ate chocolate every day had better sex lives on average than those who did not eat chocolate.

The chocolate-eaters scored significantly higher on a psychological measure known as the Female Sexual Function Index and on a measure of sexual desire. Sadly, this finding probably has a more boring explanation.

It transpired that Italian women who eat chocolate also tend to be younger, and age has a bearing on sexual function. When the data were adjusted for age, the women had similar sexual scores regardless of their chocolate intake. Ah well.

Chocolate may not go straight to the groin but it does have genuine health benefits. In recent years, a large body of scientific evidence has accumulated which shows that eating dark chocolate reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. The explanation is fairly clear.

In common with a number of other foodstuffs, dark chocolate contains substantial amounts of antioxidant chemicals known as flavonoids. The other main dietary sources of flavonoids are tea, apples, blueberries, cranberries and red wine, but dark chocolate is the richest source.

Convincing evidence from more than 130 published studies indicates that flavonoids in chocolate can significantly reduce the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. One analysis estimated that eating 50g of dark chocolate a day could reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by 10% or more.

Flavonoids are thought to exert these beneficial effects in several different ways - namely, by reducing blood pressure, raising the level of good high-density cholesterol, reducing the level of bad low-density cholesterol, inhibiting the clotting action of blood platelets and neutralising the harmful oxidative action of free radicals. Flavonoids may also exert a modest influence on the immune system.

These beneficial effects appear to outweigh the negative health consequences arising from the saturated fat and sugar. And of course it tastes wonderful too.

Compelling evidence that flavonoid- rich chocolate really is good for health has come from research on indigenous people in Central America whose diet contains a lot of it.

The Kuna Indians who live on the San Blas archipelago, north of Panama, have one of the most flavonoid-rich diets on the planet. They regularly drink up to 40 cups a week of cacao-rich chocolate. It is the only thing they drink and they drink it every day.

The chocolate is bitter, so they add lots of sugar. A long-term study found that, far from making them obese, this chocolate-packed diet left the Kuna with unusually low levels of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

When it comes to reducing your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, not all chocolates are born equal. Dark chocolate typically has at least double the flavonoid content of milk chocolate and can provide up to 40 times more than the worst types of insipid confectionery.

On top of that, there is some evidence that dairy products might impede the antioxidant action of flavonoids. Anyone keen to benefit from the health-giving potential of chocolate should therefore choose the dark, cacao-rich variety.

Finally, chocophiles should be particularly heartened by the findings of a major long-term study in Finland, which tracked the health of a large sample of men born between 1919 and 1934. Their physical and mental health was assessed in the 1960s and again in 2002-3.

The data revealed that men who ate chocolate were, on average, slimmer than those who preferred other types of confectionery.

They had a lower body mass index, slimmer waists and were less likely to suffer from diabetes. They also had higher self-rated measures of subjective health.

On top of that, the chocolate-eaters scored higher on measures of psychological and emotional well-being; they rated themselves to be happier, less lonely and with a more positive outlook on life than men who did not eat chocolate.

What more do you need?

Edited extract from Sex, Drugs & Chocolate - the science of pleasure by Paul Martin. HarperCollins, $44.99.

Sunday Star Times