How Chocolate Understands

The story began with it serving as a staple drink to the people of Mesoamerica, centuries ago. Today, it is one of the most loved and widely consumed foods in the world. Theobroma cacao, commonly known as chocolate, has enchanted and mystified us for years. After all, its name hails it as the ‘food of the Gods.’

And we treat it so. Our most exquisite preparations contain chocolate. It is crafted to perfection, to satisfy the irresistible love we harbour for it. It is a part of our celebration and our despair. And for good reason.

Chocolate has proven to produce a positive influence on mood (Macht & Dettmer, 2006). Through its various components, this highly complex compound produces biological effects that are nearly impossible to replicate. One of chocolate’s major components is phenylethylamine (PEA), commonly known as the “love drug.” PEA stimulates the release of endorphins, dopamine and norepinephrine—neurotransmitters that are involved in the feelings of euphoria and love.

In fact, the association between chocolate and love is so strong that language often takes on this characteristic in describing the emotion. ‘Love is sweet’, ‘sour grapes’, ‘jealousy is bitter’ are commonly used phrases in English, ones that draw parallel between our emotions and tastes. Chang, Tong, Tan and Koh (2006) found that love is, indeed, associated with sweetness and jealousy with bitterness. Further, individuals experiencing love perceived chocolate as sweeter than those experiencing jealousy. This perceptual judgement suggests a possible tendency towards consuming sweet things such as chocolate when in love!

Given such mood enhancing and powerful effects of chocolate, it is frequently consumed as a comfort food, and is a highly craved dessert. Women show a great liking and craving for chocolate, particularly during the premenstrual period (Rozin, Levine, & Stoess, 1991). One probable explanation for this is the differences in the brain’s reactivity to chocolate. Smeets et al. (2006) found sex differences in the effect of chocolate satiation on brain activation, particularly in the hypothalamus, ventral striatum, and medial prefrontal cortex. This could play a vital role in making chocolate more appealing to women.

And while many of us resort to chocolate during times of need and despair, its long-term effectiveness is far from established. Several studies have been conducted to explore how chocolate helps relieve stress. One particular study by Wirtz et al. (2014) found dark chocolate to be an effective means of buffering stress reactivity in human beings. As an anti-depressant, chocolate serves the purpose of hedonistic pleasure but is more likely to prolong the dysphoric mood. Irrespective, its consumption does offer mood elevation, even if these benefits are ephemeral (Parker, Parker, & Brotchie, 2006).

Importantly, these perceived feelings of comfort and warmth depend on the type of chocolate. Gámbaro et al. (2012) found that milk chocolate is most strongly associated with warmth, positive feelings, and is generally most loved. Dark chocolate is perceived as healthy, but there is a tendency to view white chocolate as overly sweet and greasy.

Chocolate’s ability to influence our moods and emotions does not lie simply in its taste. Chocolate appeals to all our senses, one of the strongest being to the olfactory sense. A study by Doucé et al. (2013) pointed towards the scent of chocolate influencing consumer behaviour. More specifically, the aroma encouraged general approach behaviour while negatively influencing goal-directed behaviour in a bookstore. The aroma of chocolate can thus play an influential role in consumer attention. It is evident in the rise of advertising of chocolate-scented deodorants. After all, who can miss a chocolate man walking down the street, turning all women’s heads?

Thus, chocolate, in all its divinity, does a lot more than satisfying our taste. It can influence, uplift and alter experiences in myriad ways researchers are yet to completely decode. Individual chemistry, too, plays an important role and thus there will always be a few quirky individuals who remain completely indifferent to this creation.

For the rest of us, follow the words of Remus Lupin and, ‘Eat. You’ll feel better.’

Chinmayee Kantak