Easter – the best time of year for chocoholics

Humankind’s love affair, indeed obsession, with chocolate has lasted since the wonders of the humble bean, from the Theobroma cacao tree, were first discovered by humans as far back as 1900 BC in Mesoamerica.

Good feelings are so strongly associated with chocolate that research has focused on trying to locate specific feel-good ingredients in chocolate. Several potential mood-altering chemicals have been identified out of the 300 or so chemicals in chocolate and put forward to explain our addiction to the food.

However, recent work by Cambridge neuroscientist Adrian Owen, has demonstrated that the answer is much simpler, especially given that the amounts of mood-altering substances in an average chocolate bar are not sufficient to bring about a demonstrable biological effect – in fact cheese and sausages can contain more of these substances than chocolate and these foods are not certainly not associated with similar levels of craving.

It seems that chocolate makes us feel so good simply because it tastes so good. The research found that eating a chocolate bar induces sensations that appear more pleasurable than listening to your favourite music, winning the lottery, or even falling in love. By monitoring the activity of the part of the brain that registers the reward value or pleasure of an activity, it was possible to show that this area ‘glows’ much more strongly whenever we eat, or even smell, chocolate compared with many other pleasurable activities.

Dr Owen said that the scientific data supports the notion that the mood-enhancing effects of chocolate are psychological rather than pharmacological. He concludes, “The unique combination of aroma, texture and taste makes eating chocolate a pleasurable experience that stimulates the emotional ‘feel-good’ centres of the brain. In short, the chocolate tastes good, so we feel good”.

Research also supports what we all know – that women seem to be more prone to chocolate cravings than men. Around 15 percent of males appear to crave chocolate, while as much as 40 percent of women do (and three quarters of these women claim that absolutely nothing other than chocolate can satisfy their appetite). For most people craving chocolate is not necessarily harmful – indeed it can be healthy if dark chocolate is eaten moderately and regularly. However, if consumption rises to the level of “binge eating” it can be a real problem, especially if milk chocolate, which is much higher in sugar and fat, is preferred. Chocolate is, in fact, the food most desired by women who binge eat.

So what amount and kind of chocolate is best? Regular (even daily) helpings of about 25-40g of dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa) have been associated with myriad health benefits in addition to improving mood and decreasing levels of stress hormones. These include a reduction in blood pressure and heart disease risk, an increase in mental performance, and an increase in energy, amongst others.

So choose and eat your chocolates wisely this Easter to prolong the pleasure and health benefits. And remember to keep all chocolate away from pets. Chocolate contains the stimulant theobromine, as well as small amounts of caffeine. In sufficient amounts, theobromine is toxic to animals such as horses, dogs, parrots, small rodents, and cats because they are unable to metabolise the chemical effectively. Dark chocolate contains 2-5 times more theobromine and so as little as 25g of dark chocolate (a small bar) could cause symptoms of acute toxicity in a 20 kg dog.