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The romance of chocolate

Is chocolate an aphrodisiac? Gifts of chocolate are given usually with that intent at this time of the year. Does it work? Well, maybe; gastronomy is known as the sister art of love.

Women often crave chocolate. In 1648, according to the diary of English Jesuit Thomas Gage, the women of Chiapas Real arranged for the murder of a certain bishop who forbade them to drink chocolate during mass. Not long after, ironically, the bishop was murdered by someone who had added poison to his daily cup of chocolate.

In order to understand why chocolate is so enjoyable we need to consider the contents of chocolate. Chocolate contains an array of compounds that contribute to the pleasurable sensation of eating it. Many of these compounds are quite psychoactive if they are able to get into our brain. Are they the reason that we love chocolate so much? Yes.

Chocolate usually contains fats that may induce the release of endogenous molecules that act similar to heroin and produce a feeling of euphoria. German researchers reported that drugs that are able to block the actions of this opiate-like chemical produced by eating chocolate prevented the pleasure associated with eating chocolate. Chocolate also contains a small amount of the marijuana-like chemical called anandamide. Although this molecule can easily cross the blood-brain barrier, the levels in chocolate are probably too low to produce an effect on our mood by itself.

In contrast to its effects on men, women more often claim that chocolate can lift their spirits. In a study of college students and their parents, 14% of sons and fathers, and 33% of daughters and mothers met the standard of being substantially addicted to chocolate. Women seem to have very strong cravings for chocolate just prior to and during their menstrual cycle. Chocolate may provide an antidepressant effect during this period. In one study researchers found that women in their fifties often develop a sudden strong craving for chocolate. Why?

Chocolate contains magnesium salts, the absence of which in elderly females may be responsible for the common post-menopausal condition known as chocoholism. One hundred milligrams of magnesium salt is sufficient to take away any trace of chocoholism in these women, but who would want to do that? Finally, a standard bar of chocolate contains as many anti-oxidants as a glass of red wine. Clearly, there are many good reasons for both men and women to eat chocolate to obtain its indescribably soothing, mellow, and yet euphoric effect.

Chocolate contains phenethylamine (PEA), a molecule that resembles amphetamine and some of other psychoactive stimulants. When chocolate is eaten, PEA is rapidly metabolized by the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO). Fifty percent of the PEA you consume in a chocolate bar is metabolized within only 10 minutes. Thus very little PEA usually reaches the brain, consequently contributing little or no appreciable psychoactive effect without the use of a drug that can inhibit MAO. Could this happen? Possibly yes. MAO levels are at their lowest level in premenstrual women, which is the time when women most crave the soothing effects of chocolate.

The main point is that plants, such as the pods from the cocoa tree, contain a complex variety of chemicals that, when considered individually, are not likely to impact our brain function. However, when considered in aggregate they may exert complex and multiple effects throughout the body. Sometimes other ingredients are added to the chocolate to enhance it effects. Long ago, chili was used as a key ingredient in the fortifying chocolate drink the great ruler Montezuma. He claimed it made his tongue dance and his pulse quicken in preparation for his daily visit to his beautiful concubines. At least for Montezuma, chocolate was an effective aphrodisiac.

Featured image credit: Chocolate. CC0 via Pixabay.

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