The world is filled with marvelous things: Gorgeous sunsets and sunrises, beautiful masterpieces created by world renowned artists, and my personal favorite, Chocolate. It gives us an immediate sensory pleasure and gives people a small burst of energy. There is a notion that women love chocolate (I would say that it is true), but of course men and children of all ages enjoy this delicious and sweet treat. Not only does this decadent and creamy delight warm the hearts of millions on Valentine's day, it represents affection and love for someone. It seems as though most people enjoy chocolate and most people think they know why they may crave chocolate or feel better once eating a piece of chocolate, but there is more to it than just sugary deliciousness creating a wonderful sensation on our taste buds. Unfamiliar to most, it also involves chemistry. What components in chocolate cause our brain to crave chocolate and to love every bite of it? What chemical components in chocolate are beneficial to humans and why does it make us feel good? Phenylethylamine, Theobromine, caffeine, and certain cannabinoids (yes, the same substance found in marijuana) are some of the culprits for our craving for chocolate and why we enjoy it immensely.
The love drug, also known as Phenylethylamine (PEA), is found in chocolate. ‘The Chemistry of Love’ written by psychiatrist Dr. Michael Liebowitz in 1983 introduced the idea of chocolate being a food that contains substances that can cause an affect on humans chemically and psychologically. PEA is also produced naturally in the brain. It acts as a stimulant by elevating the effects of dopamine, another substance produced naturally by the brain, which in turn, leads to an increase in feeling happier and an increase in feelings of pleasure. Chocolate also contains minute amounts of it: about .4-6.6 micrograms per gram of chocolate. (Clark). The compound also causes a similar effect on the brain that creates the feeling of being in love. Yes, chocolate does contains PEA, but unfortunately, most of the amounts of PEA get metabolized before it reaches our central nervous system(CNS) so it does not create a full aphrodisiac effect, yet chocolate still is consumed and enjoyed by most which most likely is due to a placebo effect rather than the chemistry.
Not only does the small amount of these compounds found in chocolate make the affects of it non-functional, but the process of becoming accustomed to certain types of components that bring pleasure has affected how we as humans respond to certain types of stimuli. Chocolate does contain components and compounds that act similarly to many drugs such as ecstasy, morphine, and marijuana, but why does the FDA not regulate foods that contain small amounts of these drug-like compounds? In a world filled with energy drinks, cigarettes, delicious chocolate, and other items that produce these pleasure-inducing chemicals, our brains have become accustomed to these feelings of pleasure produced by these things (Clark).
These compounds that act on receptors release pleasure generating neurotransmitters. When referring to these receptors in our brain, there are two ways that they can function. They either: bind to the receptors which causes them to release the neurotransmitter or they “bind to the site to prevent the reabsorption of those neurotransmitters” (Clark). This affects how the compounds in chocolate are interpreted in our bodies and why it does not produce an overwhelming, drug-like effect when consumed. The body naturally tries to maintain and seek equilibrium. Because of this need for equilibrium, the body begins to shut down receptors that naturally release these feel-good hormones when these hormones are released artificially by the compounds found in chocolate, or any other drug for that matter. The body wants to maintain a certain amount of these compounds in our body at one time. So if another way to release these hormones, such as the presence of the compounds found in chocolate such as PEA and certain cannabinoids, is detected in the body, its natural response is to shut down the existing receptors that release the same hormone. Desensitization to the effects of these compounds is a result of this process the body goes through.
Another stimulant that is found in chocolate is Theobromine, an alkaloid, which happens to be in the same family of compounds as caffeine. Instead of being a stimulant like caffeine, theobromine acts as a relaxant. Caffeine and theobromine are both very similar structurally; only differing in the presence of a methyl group on the caffeine molecule. They both have many of the “same stimulant effects on the human brain when given in equal doses” (Australian Academy of Science) which contributes to that sensation of a boost of energy people experience after eating a piece of chocolate. Both of those are considered to be methylxanthines which have been proven to produce a psychopharmacological effect on the brain which includes: central nervous system stimulation, cardiovascular and metabolic effects (Aprotosoaie). All three stimulants (Phenylethylamine, Theobromine, caffeine) increase the activity of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) in parts of the brain that control our ability to pay attention and stay alert. That is why we feel more alert after chocolate is consumed.
To furthermore asses how theobromine and caffeine pertain to our liking of chocolate, H.J Smith and R.J Blackburn conducted an experiment where they tested if those methylxanthines (theobromine and caffeine) have anything to do with why we like chocolate. They ran an experiment to determine the effects of the two components when repeatedly paired with a drink to see if the liking of the drink increased in the presence of these variables (theobromine and caffeine). They were trying to investigate the role of methylxanthines in chocolate and how it correlates with the liking of a particular food/drink. During the experiment, they administered a flavored drink plus the methylxanthines (caffeine and theobromine) to individuals participating. These individuals also either took a capsule of theobromine+caffeine or a placebo. They then were asked their liking of every drink. The results showed that the constant and repeated pairing of methylxanthines increased the liking of the taste of the drink. This result also shows that these methylxanthines in chocolate may play a role in our liking of chocolate. It is evident through this experiment that the combination of theobromine and caffeine is part of why we continue to enjoy this particular sweet treat.
The most interesting thing about chocolate is that it contains a cannabinoid called Anandamide. This “bliss molecule” -named for the Sanskrit word for happiness-naturally binds to cannabinoid receptors. Small quantities of anandamide is also found in chocolate. In the brain, it helps stimulate and open synapses. This allows for feel good waves, such as dopamine, to transmit easier and more readily into our brain. When anandamide is produced naturally by the brain, its effects do not last nearly as long as they do when chocolate is consumed. This is because chocolate contains chemicals that inhibit the natural breakdown of anandamide; making it last longer in our bodies therefore making us feel happy for a longer period of time( Haines).
Not only does Anandamide help continue to facilitate the feeling of happiness after eating chocolate, it also aids in why we tend to crave chocolate and not other types of sweets. Researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego
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