FOLEY: Chocolate: A Chemical Addiction
Published: Thursday, October 10, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 11, 2013 00:10
They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right? In that case, I confess: I am addicted to chocolate.
Granted, if Cadbury and Hershey’s and all the other various candy bar companies went bankrupt tomorrow, I could still physically survive. But there’s something about a chocolate craving that’s just stronger than other foods for me. Fortunately, chemistry proves that a nagging sweet tooth isn’t entirely to blame for my habit: Chocolate’s composition gives it a natural hook for suckers like myself.
Chocolate has been around for ages. Though its first official appearance in history textbooks is in 16th-century Europe, a study in 2002 used liquid chromatography to find traces of cocoa residue on Mayan ceramic pots that date back to 600 B.C. When it was finally commercialized in 1847 in England, chocolate had a long-standing reputation as a luxury good. The Cadbury brothers soon followed suit, and now we’ve got a culture rich with chocolate, from mochas to chocolate-covered strawberries.
There’s a reason for chocolate’s centuries of popularity: a perfect blend of chemical properties that keeps us coming back for more. I’m sure you’ve noticed the smooth, creamy taste of a Hershey’s bar, but did you know that this property results from its high saturated fat? Cocoa butter contains large amounts of stearate, which is an 18-carbon long fatty acid chain. It gives chocolate a slightly waxy, solid texture at room temperature. However, when you put a piece of chocolate in your mouth, your body’s temperature breaks the bonds that make chocolate a solid, and it literally melts in your mouth into heavenly goodness. This is also why you should never leave a chocolate bar in your car on a warm summer day.
There’s also the rumor that chocolate serves as an aphrodisiac. True, it does contain tryptophan, an amino acid we typically associate with Thanksgiving turkey. But certain types of unsweetened baking chocolate actually contain higher amounts of tryptophan-to-protein ratios than everyone’s favorite gobbling poultry. Rather than making us tired, tryptophan’s primary function is to increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of ecstasy. Additionally, chocolate contains phenylethylalanine, which is the chemical associated with the rush of falling in love. Of course, within chocolate, the levels of these chemicals are relatively low, so there is some debate over whether or not chocolate can actually set the mood. But from my experience, chocolate is extremely comparable to love, so I’m not all that surprised.
As if a food substitute for love weren’t enough, there are still the stimulant aspects of chocolate to consider. One of chocolate’s most tantalizing components is theobromine. This mild stimulant is only one methyl group different from caffeine — enough to imitate the effects of the famed stimulant — and is a basic plant alkaloid. I’m no botanist, but I do know that other plant-based alkaloids include morphine from poppy seed, cocaine, nicotine and, of course, caffeine itself. And theobromine doesn’t just wake you up — it also decreases your stress levels. Got a huge paper to write between now and midnight? Try skipping the java and hit up the M&Ms instead.
Of course, in large quantities, theobromine has negative effects. In adults who take in more than 50 to 100 grams of cocoa a day, side effects include anxiety, sweating, trembling and even severe headaches. Sometimes, this means hospitalization for the delicate among us, particularly old people. And for smaller mammals like dogs, the effect can be fatal — this is why chocolate and dogs don’t mix.
The word addiction typically brings to mind serious consequences, like those of alcoholism or smoking. That’s why I’m not entirely comfortable with the fact that chocolate — even in all its milky goodness — has some of these addictive qualities. I’m uncomfortable depending on any one substance just to get through the day. I justify my daily indulgence by the relative tameness of the the habit-forming compounds in chocolate. But even writing that makes me wonder if this is just my love for theobromine and phenylethylalanine talking.
And while I certainly hope no developments link chocolate to severe negative health effects, I’d have to say that death by chocolate would be a pretty good way to go.
Katherine Foley is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Curious By Nature appears every other Friday.