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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Boldly Going Nowhere

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Chocolate

Life is like a box of chocolates. It's full of temptation and eventually becomes empty.

The cacao tree, also known as "Theobroma cacao" to those who prefer scientific names, is native to the tropical, equatorial slopes of the Andes in South America. Theobroma is Greek for "food of the gods." The ancient Aztecs worshiped the cacao tree and used the beans as currency. Their main god, Quetzalcoatl, was the guardian of the cacao tree, considered the source of strength and wealth. The Aztecs crushed the beans into a paste, added spices, and drank it. Cacao seeds (beans) are the source of cocoa, cocoa butter and chocolate.

Early explorers brought the cacao bean back to Europe in the 1500s. With the invention of the moulding process in the 1800s, cacao beans were crushed into a fine powder, heated and poured into moulds, forming shapes as it cooled. Thus the first chocolate candy bar came into being.

All modern commercial chocolate products contain substantial amounts of sugar, which may partially explain why chocolate can be so addictive. According to research at New York University, there is a genetic reason some people crave sugary foods. Researchers identified a gene that was different between groups who craved sweets and those who didn't. An ability by prehistoric humans to identify nutritional foods, such as fruits, while avoiding bitter plant material, which could be toxic, may have led to a genetic trait present today through human evolution.

Chocolate, like other sweet foods, stimulates the release of endorphins, natural body hormones that generate feelings of pleasure. A craving for chocolate could be a craving for pleasure. There are over 300 chemicals in chocolate, many of which may also promote craving. For example, chocolate contains magnesium and iron, thus would satisfy anyone with a shortage of such minerals, such as pregnant women.

Chocolate contains a small amount of caffeine, a stimulant of the central nervous system. Another stimulant present is theobromine, which relaxes the muscles in the linings of the lung. This compound is safe for human beings but metabolizes more slowly in dogs and other domestic animals, and could even kill them.

Many studies show that some chocolate ingredients affect the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transport electronic signals between nerve cells in the brain, causing changes in emotions and sensations. Chocolate contains tryptophan, which creates a neurotransmitter called serotonin. High levels of serotonin can produce feelings of ecstasy. Coincidentally, the designer drug called ecstasy also works by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.

Another chemical named phenylethylamine works as an amphetamine by stimulating the brain's pleasure centers, generating feelings of excitement, attraction and apprehension. Anadamide is another neurotransmitter in chocolate that acts on the same brain structure as THC, the active ingredient in cannabis (marijuana).

However, the amount of tryptophan, phenylethylamine and anadamine in chocolate is so small one would have to consume vast quantities to produce a euphoric state similar to street drugs. According to neuroscientist Daniele Piomelli, chocolate works "indirectly" to produce its high. It contains chemicals known to slow down the breakdown of certain compounds, therefore prolonging the action of the natural stimulation in the brain.

To add to the confusion, chocolate, specifically dark chocolate, may be good for you. It contains flavonoids, including procyanidins, epicatechins and catechins. These compounds are antioxidents, which lower oxidation levels in LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase levels in HDL (good) cholesterol. They also reduce blood clotting, increase blood vessel flexibility and improve blood flow. Harvard University did a study that suggests those who eat chocolate three times a month will live almost a year longer than those who don't.

Chocolate is terrific stuff. It tastes great, gives you an emotional lift and promotes a natural high. But don't tell the government about it or they'll take that away from us too.