For the Love of Chocolate
BAYOUHEALTH BY SHANNON DAHLUM
Gifting chocolate as a symbol of love and affection is nothing new. The Aztecs considered chocolate an aphrodisiac, believing it contained substances that stoked the flames of desire and opened people up to romance. They even used cacao beans as currency and only their cultural elite had the pleasure of drinking this holy beverage. In ancient Mayan civilization, the cacao bean was revered as a divine delicacy and was thought to be one of the godliest of all foods. The scientific name for the cacao tree, Theobroma Cacao, is a Greek saying that even translates to ‘food for the Gods.’
In 1519, the cacao bean made its way to Spain but it wasn’t until they began sweetening it with cane sugar that it became a fixture in Spanish royal ceremonies. European royalty gave chocolates to their lovers to enhance feelings of love, and chocolate remained a privilege reserved for the wealthy in nearly every country until around 1850, when the monarchy was overtaken. In 1861, the first heart shaped box of chocolates was produced by Richard Cadbury, and now, more than 36 million heart shaped boxes are sold each year. That’s 58 million pounds of chocolate!
Have you ever popped some form of chocolate into your mouth and felt that wave of calm and satisfaction that seems to instantly soothe the rough edges of a stressful day? Surely, I’m not the only one. Whether you’ve experienced it for yourself or not, there is actually some science to back up the claims of chocolate’s ability to enhance feelings of love and pleasure. Researchers Richard and Judith Wurtman, of MIT, found that eating sweetened foods, like milk chocolate, elevates serotonin, a neurotrasmitter that promotes feelings of emotional stability, happiness and calm. Other research has shown that chocolate can also increase levels of endorphins, our own natural opiod. Because of its ability to stimulate pleasure regulating chemicals in the brain, chocolate can be not only a sensual indulgence, but can also become an out of control addiction.
High quality cacao is a health-promoting food. According to “Genius Foods,” by health and science journalist Max Lugavere, the flavanols present in chocolate have been shown to reverse signs of cognitive aging, improve insulin sensitivity, vascular function and blood flow to the brain, and even increase athletic performance. It’s also among the richest natural food sources of magnesium, a mineral that’s vital for over 300 biochemical reactions in the body.
To reap the benefits that chocolate can provide, quality is key. A lot of the chocolate available on store shelves has been highly processed and loaded with sugar, which degrades the nutrients and transforms it from super food to empty-calorie junk food. When shopping for chocolate, avoid anything that says “processed with alkali”, or “Dutch processed” on the label. This process kills the phytonutrients contained in the raw cacao. When chocolate is labeled “cacao”, that means it’s raw and unprocessed, and these products are your best bet. If it’s spelled “cocoa”, it has been heated during processing, likely killing its health promoting benefits.
It’s also important to choose a product with minimal sugar added. Avoid milk chocolate and white chocolate, which are loaded with sugar and aren’t really any better than most other forms of candy. Look for dark chocolate with a cacao content of 80% or above. Anything lower than that is excessively sweet and is hyper-palatable, which means that it’s unnaturally packed with a flavor that over-stimulates the reward centers in your brain, triggering an insatiable feedback loop that has you constantly going back for more. If you find a rich dark chocolate containing around 85% cacao, you’re more likely to find that consuming one square here and there allows you to enjoy this sensual superfood without triggering an uncontrollable addiction to it.
The sugar content in chocolate isn’t the only thing that can trigger uncontrollable cravings, though. Even the highest quality dark chocolate can create an insatiable feedback loop due to its stimulating nature. Chocolate contains caffeine and at least three other stimulants which, like cocaine, spike dopamine and norepinephrine levels. This triggers a sense of euphoria that can keep you going back for more. If you find yourself craving dark chocolate when you’re low in energy, like during that common mid afternoon slump, or when you’re experiencing a case of the ‘blahs’, it could be the stimulating effect you’re after. This is a common phenomena that can happen when you start your day with coffee and skip breakfast. The caffeine in your coffee is an appetite suppressant, so you may choose not to eat. Later, once that caffeine wears off and you haven’t had nourishing foods to keep your energy system stable, you crash and wind up craving more caffeinated, stimulating foods, like dark chocolate, which provides a temporary pick-me-up.
It’s no wonder chocolate is the third most popular gift given on Valentine’s Day (jewelry and flowers take the top two spots). On a holiday that celebrates love, it seems like a no-brainer to give a treat that quite literally triggers feelings of love and euphoria in your loved ones. Keep in mind, though, that gifts which temporarily boost feelings of love aren’t meant to be a replacement for giving your own love and receiving it from those around you. When we lack meaningful connection with others, it’s easy to look for things in our external environment that trigger those feelings within us, and food addiction can take over. Hug more, laugh more, listen more and spend more time with your loved ones, and of course, enjoy the experience of allowing a piece of rich, silky, dark chocolate to melt in your mouth on occasion. Just remember that it’ll never replace your deepest human desire for true love and connection.