The annual day of romance, Valentine's Day, is just around the corner, giving chocolate lovers everywhere a good reason to buy some chocolate to share with a loved one. It's amazing that such a simple treat can mean so much to so many people, and be available for as little as a few cents or instead an expensive delight that connoisseurs compare to tasting wine.
One key component to understanding the allure of chocolate, and why you want to buy it, is understanding what it does to your brain. It's not just about supermarkets placing candy right by the cash register. There are secret feelings of guilt, hidden memories of pleasure and other factors at work. You might even be biologically predestined to need chocolate.
Chocolate has about 300 compounds that help the release of neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, both known for alertness and relaxation, says registered dietician Manuel Villacorta. It also has a unique transmitter, phenylethylamine, which boosts mood and decreases depression.
Beyond the great taste, those neurotransmitters are released into the brain and make some people want it so much that they become chocoholics, Villacorta says. The brain remembers fonder, better moments when you're feeling down, and since the dopamine reward pathway mechanism recalls chocolate as a good feeling, you begin to crave this little pleasure.
Some people turn chocolate into a guilty pleasure, and cut themselves off when they feel bad about it. But most people cannot stay away from foods that they love for very long, which can cause binging and even more guilt, says Villacorta, who eats two tablets of dark chocolate every night as his dessert and reward. Chocolate is a small pleasure that should be incorporated into daily life and eaten without guilt, he advises.
Some people crave chocolate for reasons other than feeling a little down or craving specific chemicals, polyphenols or amino acids found in chocolate, says Anne Palermo, owner of Sulpice Chocolate. A study in 2007 found that there is a strain of bacteria living in the digestive systems of certain people that causes strong cravings for chocolate and other foods.
To satisfy the cravings, people often go to the easiest source — the run-of-the-mill candy bar that has very little essential nutrients and instead has a high quantity of fats, trans fats, sugars and other chemicals and preservatives that aren't good for the body, Palermo says. That leads to more chocolate being eaten to satisfy the craving, resulting in more calories and weight gain. The craving is better served with high quality chocolate, she says.
There are some proven health benefits to eating chocolate, including reducing hypertension and vascular dementia, says Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of "The Science of Kissing" and a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. If has been found in brain scans to raise cerebral bloodflow to gray matter, which may benefit people as they age.
The combination of sugar, fat and creaminess in chocolate provides sensual satisfaction that is hard to find elsewhere. But if it's love you're looking for, remember that phenylethylamine, a compound that is associated with falling in love and is found in chocolate — is also contained in salami and cheese, says Bruce D. Sanders, a consumer psychologist and retailing consultant. A few slices of salami and cheese may not sound as appetizing as a piece of dark, rich and expensive chocolate, but they'll help play the part of cupid at a cheaper rate.
Photo credit: SashaW via Flickr