Chocolate: Secrets Unveiled

history, effect on mood, as a stimulant, health benefits, fiction and facts…

Chocolate. Who could ever deny the absolute bliss that comes from one, small bar of the brown delicacy? It might be rare to meet someone who claims they do not enjoy curling up on the couch at night with a bar of chocolate, or a cup of hot cocoa, and a good book to get rid of the stress of the entire day.

However, I hardly think that anyone –whether doctors, medical-school students, kids playing on the streets or even a stressed-out housewife— consider the whole story behind chocolate, be it the history of this treat, or the effect it has on our body, to give us the feeling of happiness, or leading to several health benefits. Also, many of us have no idea whether our parents’ and grandparents’ claims that chocolate gives us acne and causes tooth decay, are true or not.

Let us take a look beyond the velvety, brown softness of chocolate and study the even finer details of it.

Was…Became…Currently Is: The delicious secret of the cacao (kah-KOW) tree was discovered 2,000 years ago in the tropical rainforests of the Americas. The pods of this tree contain seeds that can be processed into chocolate.

Ancient Mayan vessel depicting how chocolate was served as beverage

Humans started using chocolate as far back as the Pre-classic period (900 BC to AD 250). Using liquid chromatography, scientists have discovered cocoa residues in Mayan ceramic pots used in food preparation, dated around 600 BC [1]. A lot of Mayan wall-paintings and stoneware carry hieroglyphs showing chocolate poured for rulers and gods [2]. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because the Latin name for the cacao tree is: Theobromacacao, means ‘food of the gods’.
Much later on, in the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadors, or conquerors, introduced chocolate to Europe and ever since, a sweeter version of the frothy, spicy and bitter drink, became a tasty treat throughout the whole continent. In 1847, the first commercial chocolate bars were invented in England by Joseph Storrs Fry, with the Cadbury brothers following soon after.

Speaking of Cadbury, Kraft recently bought it for a meager $19.6bn [3]. What a shame, in my opinion. Let’s hope Kraft keeps its paws off Mars’ Galaxy…

Dog-Day Afternoon?? A Chocolate Can Make It Better: As mentioned earlier…we all must have experienced days so horrible, that we end up thinking that nothing could ever make it better. Of course, a small, innocent, seemingly-harmless bar of chocolate manages to prove us wrong time and again. [4]

Yes, most of us must have experienced the magical effect chocolate has on our moods. Boys usually refuse to acknowledge that fact. But I’d strongly recommend giving it a try and you would be able to judge for yourselves, even without reading the logical, scientific explanation as to how chocolate improves our state of mind from endlessly annoyed, to blissfully calm.

No matter what your problems are, a piece of chocolate can make it all better…

Chocolate contains the essential amino acid, Tryptophan, which is the precursor of the neurotransmitter Serotonin.

Also, the high sugar and fat content of a piece of chocolate, too, helps create a

burst of endorphins and serotonin. This neurotransmitter, along with other important functions, is concerned with regulating our mood, and is prescribed in various parts of the

world as an antidepressant [5] and is sometimes referred to as the “molecule of happiness” [6].

Chocolate also contains the trace amine, phenylethylamine, which naturally occurs in our brain, where it releases the neurotransmitter, dopamine. This neurotransmitter is associated with the pleasure center of our brain. Phenylethylamine is described as the ‘love chemical’ and plays a vital role during times when we feel love and passion strongly, and during those times, we are in our best frame of mind. Perhaps that is why chocolate is a very well-known aphrodisiac and the most common gift given to a sick person as a get-well gift, or to a woman by her husband. This chemical was the basis for “The Chocolate Theory of Love” proposed by the researcher, Michael Liebowitz [7].

However, phenylethylamine is quickly metabolized by the enzyme MAO-B, preventing significant concentrations from reaching the brain. Hence it is unclear exactly how amine in chocolate affects us. It is suggested that the sensitivity to phenylethylamine varies from individual to another. This may also explain why some people never go through a stressful day without a chocolate, and why some don’t even like chocolate.

Chocolate Compared To… Coffee? I may be inviting the attack of coffee addicts out there by what I just wrote, but make no mistake, folks, coffee just may be the one thing that rivals chocolate in my book. However, for some other people, coffee doesn’t particularly taste as nice as chocolate does. And those people, just like us coffee-addicts, need a boost at the start of the day to enable them to open their eyes and go to college/work.

Chocolate is a stimulant. A mild one, yet a stimulant nonetheless. The reason for this stimulation is because chocolate is rich in alkaloid molecules known as methylxanthines –theobromine, theophylline and caffeine in particular.

Those three chemicals are mild stimulants. All three molecules affect us in the same way. They are mild stimulants that increase our alertness and makes the smooth muscles of the bronchi in the lungs relax. They also increase urine production. Theobromine is however much milder than caffeine and the effects less obvious [8]. It is notable; that Theobromine gets its name from the name of the cacao tree, Theobroma.

Chocolate is a much milder stimulant than coffee because it has a higher content of theobromine and a lower content of caffeine, which is rich in the latter. However, for those of you out there who are not great fans of coffee and its bitterness, can have a boost of energy similar –although much milder—to the one coffee provides.

A great way to avoid stomach ulcers, too, in my opinion.

Prevention Against Many Diseases…Packed In Small, Delicious Bars: Usually, chocolate is only viewed as a luxury, eaten for pleasure only. However, many studies and research show that there is more than meets the eye about chocolate, especially when health is concerned.

Dark chocolate- delicious, lush…good for the heart and the soul

Circulatory benefits: chocolate, especially dark chocolate [9], contains antioxidants, called flavonoids, or polyphenol antioxidants. The type of flavonoid found in chocolate is called epicatechin. This has vaso-protective, antiangiogenic (regulates blood vessels), antiatherogenic (inhibits artery plaque), vaso-relaxant and antihypertensive properties. The combined effects of these actions on the entire cardiovascular system makes polyphenol-rich foods like chocolate, a great daily source of heart healthy compounds. [10]

The high fat content of chocolate seems to negate any benefits to the circulatory system, but about 1/3rd of the of the fat in chocolate comes in the form of the saturated fat, stearic acid and the monosaturated fat, oleic acid. Both do not have an effect on low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in the blood serum. In fact, some studies find they could lower the levels of LDL-cholesterol, preventing the risk of heart attacks [11].

Anticancer Properties: as mentioned above, dark chocolate contains antioxidants. Not only do these help prevent heart disease, but they also protect cells from the damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals, which are thought to contribute to both the heart diseases, and cancer development. Also, a study by researchers from the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University showed that chocolate has a substance called pentameric procyanidin deactivates a number of proteins that likely work in concert to push a cancer cell to continually divide [12].

Muscle Recovery: A study from James Madison University, presented at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting, showed that post-exercise consumption of low-fat chocolate milk provides equal or possibly superior muscle recovery compared to a high-carbohydrate recovery beverage with the same amount of calories. Athletes consuming chocolate milk had significantly lower levels of creatine kinase, an indicator of muscle damage, compared to drinkers of carbohydrate beverage. Sweating causes loss of fluid and also important minerals, including calcium, potassium and magnesium, which chocolate milk helps to replenish [13]. Many famous companies like Mars and Hershey’s began redesigning their chocolate-milk products to make them more ‘sporty’ [14].

Other Benefits: benefits of chocolate do not stop with just that. Research suggested that a specially formulated type of cocoa may be nootropic[15]. Nootropics, also known as smart drugs, memory enhancers and cognitive enhancers, are substances that improve mental functions[16]. This suggests that chocolate can delay brain-function decline in old people[17].

According to Mars-funded researchers at Harvard, the University of California, and European universities, cocoa-based prescription drugs could potentially help treat diabetes, dementia and other diseases [18].

Theobromine was found to be 33% more effective than codeine, which is most common cough medicine [19].

Flavonoids can inhibit development of diarrhea, suggesting possible anti-diarrheal effects of cocoa [20].

Chocolate- True Or False: We’ve all heard them. Chocolate gives you pimples. Chocolate makes you fat. Chocolate makes you sugar-high. Which one of these is true, and which is false…let’s take a quick look at some of the accusations hurled at chocolate and find out if they are true or not.


Dark Chocolate Is Better Than All Other Types Of Chocolate

And that is why dark chocolate is promoted more than all other types. All of the aforementioned health benefits are mostly found more in dark chocolate that in other types. It contains more cocoa butter than anything else and hence, is mostly made up of the “good stuff”, in contrast to other types that have many additives.

Chocolate Causes Acne

FALSE! FALSE, FALSE, FALSE! Kiddies, not to say your parents are lying…they are simply…what is the word? Misinformed. For a very long while, people have denied themselves the utter bliss of eating chocolate simply because they are afraid of acne. To that, I, backed up by scientific research, say: Chocolate does not give you acne, it is merely the high glycemic nature of certain foods, like sugar, corn syrup, and other simple carbohydrates, who are to blame [21].

Chocolate Can Kill Your Cat

Yes, unfortunately for our cute, adorable pets, cats, dogs, horses, little rodents and parrots, they do not have the enzymes needed to metabolize theobromine [22]. This remains in their bloodstream, and may lead to epileptic seizures, heart attacks, internal bleeding, and eventually death.

Chocolate causes headaches.

While sited as a common cause of migraines, a study by the University of Pittsburgh has shown no link between chocolate and headaches. Chronic headaches were once thought to be caused by amines in foods, but this study eliminated chocolate as a cause for headaches.

Chocolate Can Cause Lead Poisoning

Recent studies have shown that although the beans themselves absorb little lead, it tends to bind to cocoa shells and contamination may occur during the manufacturing process. A recent peer-reviewed publication found significant amounts of lead in chocolate [23].

Chocolate Causes Cavities

Again, kiddies…not to say that your parents are lying, they are simply misinformed. Candy, chocolate or any other, alone is not responsible for cavities. Cavities are formed when bacteria in the mouth metabolize sugars and starches from any type of food (soda, candy, juice, bread, rice and pasta) to produce acid. This acid then eats through the enamel of the tooth, causing a cavity [24]. Not the chocolate.

Chocolate Gives You A ‘Buzz’

While it has been announced by ABC News that there is no such thing as getting ‘sugar-high’, chocolate can, in fact, give you a little ‘buzz’. As aforementioned, there are several substances in chocolate that make you feel better, elevate your blood pressure slightly and make you more alert. So yes, chocolate can give you a small, pleasant boost of energy.

Finally, in conclusion, even though a bar of chocolate seems to have proven that it is a useful, yummy little thing, let us not forget that too much of it can and WILL lead to obesity. Otherwise, in moderate amounts daily, it can be a very useful, preventive and delicious medication that doesn’t taste sour and…icky. It is quite obvious that I am quite partial to chocolate, but yes, as much of a chocolate fan I am, I admit that too much of a thing is not good for your health. So, yes to chocolate…but in reasonable amounts.


[1]– Hurst WJ et al. (2002) Cacao usage by the earliest Maya civilization. Nature 418: 289–290.

[2]– Picture courtesy of http://www.fieldmuseum.org/Chocolate/history.html

[3]– Reuters, published Tuesday Jan 19 2010. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE60H1N020100119

[4]– Picture courtesy of http://sliceofmit.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/chocolate-truffles.jpg

[5]– Yadav VK, Ryu JH, Suda N, Tanaka KF, Gingrich JA, Schütz G, Glorieux FH, Chiang CY, Zajac JD, Insogna KL, Mann JJ, Hen R, Ducy P, Karsenty G (2008). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2614332/?tool=pmcentrez

[6]http://www.chocolate-chemistry.com/sugar.php

[7]– Liebowitz, Michael, R. (1983). The Chemistry of Love. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co.

[8]– Chocolate Chemistry: Theobromine in Chocolate: http://www.chocolate-chemistry.com/theobromine%20.php

[9]– Picture courtesy of: http://margaretsmusings.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/darkchocolate.jpg

[10]http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B758G-49VC1YN-8&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1000093678&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=0479f103e53ef982396a0f3fd1213745

[11]– Kondo K, Hirano R, Matsumoto A, Igarashi O, Itakura H., Inhibition of LDL oxidation by cocoa, Lancet, November 1996

[12]http://www.mirabilis.ca/archives/002876.html

[13]– “Chocolate Milk’s ‘Natural’ Muscle Recovery Benefits Match Or May Even Surpass A Specially Designed Carbohydrate Sports Drink”. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/152240.php.

[14]– Picture courtesy of: http://www.cricketworld.com/assets/images/articles/53416_mars.JPG

[15]– “New Benefits Found in Chocolate”. Reuters. http://archive.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2007/2/18/181852.shtml. Retrieved 19 February 2007.

[16]– Dorlands Medical Dictionary.

[17]– “New Benefits Found in Chocolate”. Reuters. http://archive.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2007/2/18/181852.shtml. Retrieved 19 February 2007.

[18]– Silverman, Elissa. “The Standard – Mars talks up cocoa’s medicinal potential – World Section”. The Standard. http://www.thestandard.com.hk/stdn/std/World/GG27Wd10.html. Retrieved 27 June 2006.

[19]– Usmani, Omar S.; Belvisi, MG; Patel, HJ; Crispino, N; Birrell, MA; Korbonits, M; Korbonits, D; Barnes, PJ (February 2005). “Theobromine inhibits sensory nerve activation and cough”. The FASEB Journal

[20]– Schuier M, Sies H, Illek B, Fischer H (October 2005). “Cocoa-related flavonoids inhibit CFTR-mediated chloride transport across T84 human colon epithelia”. The Journal of Nutrition

[21]– Smith RN, Mann NJ, Braue A, Mäkeläinen H, Varigos GA (July 2007). “A low-glycemic-load diet improves symptoms in acne vulgaris patients: a randomized controlled trial”. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

[22]– “Veterinary Q & A: Chocolate Toxicity”. http://vetmedicine.about.com/cs/nutritiondogs/a/chocolatetoxici.htm. Retrieved 20 May 2008.

[23]– Rankin, CW; Nriagu, JO; Aggarwal, JK; Arowolo, TA; Adebayo, K; Flegal, AR (October 2005). “Lead contamination in cocoa and cocoa products: isotopic evidence of global contamination”. Environmental Health Perspectives

[24]– “7 Myths and Facts About Chocolate” http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/nutrition_articles.asp?id=1019&page=2

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