Plenty of people are passionate about chocolate, but few are acquainted with all the beautiful reasons why chocolate is more of a full-body experience than any other dessert ingredient could hope to be. As a chef and nutritionist who goes wild for the details of various foods' effects on our minds, spirits, and bodies (and of course, as someone who thinks chocolate is heavenly), I’ve researched this ingredient copiously, dedicated a chapter of one of my books to it, and will tell anyone who’ll listen about chocolate’s remarkable chemical attributes. Below, we’ll explore why chocolate isn’t just delicious, it’s a natural wonder in the form of a bean.
But first, some quick background info so you can fully appreciate its story: Chocolate as we know it in modern times, in bar form, is made by processing and separating parts of the cacao bean, then mixing them back together. Cacao beans are pods inside large fruits that are harvested, fermented, dried, and roasted. Roasted cacao beans are ground into a liquid and become a pure mass called chocolate liquor (no alcohol is involved). When the fat is extracted from the liquor, you get cocoa butter. Alternately, cocoa powder is what you get from the remaining liquor without the butter, once it’s dried and ground. Baking chocolate is simply chocolate liquor cooled into solid form. To make a basic chocolate bar for eating, you melt cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and sweetener together and pour it into molds. Often dairy is added, and sometimes a bit of the original chocolate liquor is as well.
Though we eat chocolate with sweetener, the Mesoamericans, who first discovered the fruit four thousand years ago, did not. They ground the beans, mixed them with water and spices, and drank the liquid in ceremonies as a savory beverage. Centuries later, Mayans created a drink of ground cacao, chiles, and cornmeal called xocolatl. Ancient Central American societies believed chocolate to be a food of the gods because of how amazing it made them feel.
Things turned sweet around the 1500s, when cacao made its way to Europe and Spaniards added sugar or honey to it. It wasn’t until the 1800s, during the industrial revolution in Europe, that a Dutch chemist invented the cocoa press and cacao began to get processed and made into the solid form of chocolate we’re most familiar with. Chocolate grew in popularity long before it tasted what we think of as “good” because of the virility, euphoria, energy, and happiness it induced; it was even used before battle, and its effectiveness impacts all people equally. Now: What is all that great stuff in it? Let's do the run-down.
First on the list of chocolate’s magical qualities is phenylethylamine. P.E.A. is the chemical your brain releases when you’re in love.The cultural history of giving chocolates for Valentine’s Day or other romantic gifting suddenly makes more sense, no? It’s rumored that starting in Victorian times chocolates would be given by a suitor to someone they were courting. The idea was that the receiver would eat the chocolate, feel the inevitable rush of “in love” chemicals, see their suitor in front of them, and associate the feelings of being in love with that person. By the mid-1800s, Cadbury had created a heart shaped package of chocolates just for this purpose, and it remains a mainstay in our society nearing two centuries later. Phenylethylamine triggers the release of endorphins and increases both dopamine and serotonin activity. Taken alone as a supplement usually sourced from algae, P.E.A. is considered a potent antidepressant.
A stimulant that increases heart rate, theobromine isn’t unique to chocolate--but the only other food with similar quantity of it, macambo seeds, never took off in popularity. Similar to caffeine, theobromine blocks adenosine receptors; that means it keeps you from getting tired. Theobromine has a longer half life than caffeine, so even though you might feel its energetic effects less than you do from caffeine, you feel them for longer.
Wanting chocolate while PMS'ing before you get your period isn’t a food craving so much as it’s a legitimate bodily need. That’s because chocolate contains soothing, relaxing magnesium—which beyond reducing anxiety also helps relieve cramps. Chocolate contains about one sixth of the RDA for magnesium per ounce, which is a hardy quantity. For cramp relief, magnesium is best paired with vitamin B6. Chocolate brand Moodygirl makes it possible to get that needed B6 in their “For That Time of the Month” chocolates formulated specifically for PMS relief. It contains added B6, as well as additional magnesium.
Ah, the drug that 90% of us know, love, and consume on the daily. Chocolate contains just twelve milligrams of caffeine per serving, so it’s no equivalent to a shot of espresso or a cup of coffee (which contain more like fifty to one hundred grams of caffeine), but it’s enough to get a little tingle of energy--especially when you remember that it’s being combined with theobromine, another stimulant. Because the absorption of caffeine is slowed in your system by fat, which chocolate contains no shortage of thanks to the amount of cocoa butter in its molded versions, this effect is even more mellowed and smooth. (Pro tip: if you like coffee but find it too stimulating, or if you experience a stronger rush and crash from coffee than you’d prefer, have it instead with heavy cream or full-fat coconut milk. The difference is palpable!)
Most shocking on the list of feel good chemicals in chocolate is this cannabinoid. Yup, your ears perked up for exactly the right reason: Chocolate is the only known food to contain the cannabinoid anandamide, unless you consider marijuana a food. It’s estimated that you’d have to consume at least twenty five pounds of chocolate to equal one joint of marijuana, so don’t get too concerned if you’re not a fan, or too excited if you are one. The anandamide content of chocolate should be considered minimal micro-dosing at most, and even that twenty five pound amount is internet-based lore, not scientific study. There have been studies on how chocolate can increase the effects of marijuana because of its anandamide content, though, should you care to run further down that rabbit hole.
A precursor to serotonin, chocolate isn’t a top food for this relaxing chemical. Rather, tryptophan is most known for being in the turkey eaten on Thanksgiving, when a post-meal nap is a common occurrence. While some of the reason for that nap is thanks to the rush of blood needed in your stomach to digest a monstrous meal, the remainder is because l-tryptophan is relaxing and sleep inducing. It requires carbohydrates to activate, meaning that poultry or other high tryptophan foods eaten alone don’t induce sleepiness. Chocolate has those carbs by way of sugar, so even though it doesn’t have a ton of tryptophan, you do receive the full benefit of the quantity it contains.
Foods rich in polyphenols, which are a breed of antioxidant, are associated with improved moods. These antioxidants have a neuroprotective effect on the brain, helping to prevent cognitive and psychiatric disorders. One study notes that “considerable attention has been ascribed to botanical and herbal polyphenols found in foods and dietary supplements, as they are relatively inexpensive, have fewer perceived side effects than many pharmaceuticals, and are non-invasive compared to other forms of treatment.” Polyphenol content in chocolate varies based on where the cacao beans were sourced, but all chocolate contains these valuable antioxidants.
No matter what your version of emotional pleasure enhancement is--stimulation, relaxation, or general mood boosting—chocolate’s got it in melty, creamy, sweet form. You can’t always rely on others to make you feel in love, alert, or relaxed, but you can always depend on chocolate.