Our obsession with chocolate could be partially cultural. While men receive bottles of whiskey as gifts, women receive chocolates, forming a link between chocolate and love. Chocolate is not a member of any food group and is rarely part of the meat-and-potatoes main course, so it is not a part of our daily routines or responsibilities. Consequently, chocolate symbolizes an escape from the day-to-day drudgery.
Then there is chocolate’s creaminess. The cocoa butter in real chocolate gives it a rich texture. Cocoa butter melts in your mouth, providing what has been termed “a moment of ecstasy.”
Chocolate also is the perfect mix of sugar and fat to turn on almost every appetite-triggering nerve chemical in the brain. The sugar in chocolate sparks the release of a nerve chemical called serotonin and might lower another nerve chemical called NPY; the end result is a sense of well-being. The sweet taste also releases endorphins in the brain, giving us an immediate euphoric rush. The fat in chocolate enhances flavor and aroma and satisfies another nerve chemical called galanin, thus curbing our cravings for fat.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to nerve-tingling chemicals. Chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine, compounds that provide a mental boost, and phenylethylamine or PEA that stimulates the nervous system, increases blood pressure and heart rate, and is suspected to produce similar feelings experienced when a person is “in love.” Even the aroma of chocolate could affect brain chemistry. Finally, chocolate contains a substance called anandamide that mimics the effects of marijuana and boosts the pleasure you get when you eat chocolate.
Not all of these connections between chocolate and body chemistry have been substantiated by well-designed research; consequently, many questions remain. For example, cheese and salami also are sources of PEA, but seldom evoke similar cravings. In fact, the amount of PEA in a chocolate bar is not likely to be enough to trigger romantic feelings. The endorphin-chocolate link is based on animals studies; no such studies have been conducted on humans so it is only speculation that people and rats share a similar endorphin rush when eating chocolate.
Others argue that a craving for chocolate is really the body’s craving for its nutrients, such as magnesium. If this is the case, why don’t people crave soybeans, peanuts, and other magnesium-rich foods? In fact, chocolate cravings usually can be satisfied only by chocolate or something that mimics its texture, taste, and aroma. Since cocoa contains more than 400 distinct flavor compounds, it is likely there are yet unexplored compounds that trigger cravings.
In short, no one knows exactly why we love chocolate, yet the cravings are very real. Since chocolate urges are not likely to “just go away,” the best tactic is to include a small chocolate snack in your eating plan and enjoy the experience.