Remember the game where you’re asked what three things you’d bring with you if you were stranded on an island? Of course, as the game is a fantasy, we could choose three outrageous items. However, if we were realistic, we’d want three things to guarantee our survival. Fantasy or reality, chocolate would be on my list…how about you?
There is something so appealing about the sharp snap that good dark chocolate makes when we bite into it. The magnificence of the mouth feel as the chocolate slowly melts on the tongue. The ever-so-slight bitter undertaste of the alkaloids awakening our taste buds, and the feeling of well-being as the chocolate slips down our throats. No wonder we love it. The question is why do we love it so much?
Scientists are still working on the subtle details of the “why,” but they have come up with some convincing reasons in the form of the components that make up this divine gift from the rainforests of the Americas.
According to Thomas Herrais, a scientist at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research in Madrid, chocolate contains a group of alkaloids known as tetrahydro-beta-carbolines. These compounds, also known as neuroactive alkaloids, are being studied for possible influences on mood and behavior.
Interestingly, these same chemicals are linked to compulsive drinking but there has been no correlation drawn between alcoholism and food addiction. However, Herrais believes that the combination of sugar, fat and some of the other ingredients found in chocolate may work together to create the cravings many of us have for chocolate. “Finding these active substances, combined with the known pleasurable effects of eating chocolate, may complete the whole picture of chocolate craving,” says Herraiz.
That is part of the chocolate matrix. Another component is anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid found in the brain. While we would have to eat several pounds of chocolate to get even the slightest buzz from the anandamide, two structural cousins present in chocolate, inhibit the metabolism of ananamide, which may promote and prolong the feeling of well-being we experience.
While there is some caffeine in chocolate, there isn’t enough to give us the buzz we can get from a cup of Joe or strong black tea. Chocolate also contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid. It is the rate-limiting step in the production of serotonin, a mood-modulating neurotransmitter that helps to diminish anxiety.
Chocolate also causes the release of endorphins. Endorphin-release reduces our sensitivity to pain and it is posited that endorphins likely contribute to the warm inner glow induced in those of us who are sensitive to chocolate.
Now, if the above-named ingredients aren’t enough to make us all feel fabulous, there’s even more as chocolate is a very complex food with hundreds of organoleptic properties.
Many women experience cravings for chocolate when they are pre-menstrual. This may be explained by chocolate’s rich magnesium content; a deficiency of magnesium exacerbates PMS. It also contains iron and other minerals.
Then there is the theobromine and phenylethylamine. These two alkaloids have been linked to euphoria. Phenylethylamine releases mesolimbic dopamine in the pleasure centers of the brain, which peaks during orgasm. While the amount of phenylethylamine available in chocolate is minute, it is possible that the various chemicals available in chocolate work in concert to create the strong sense of well-being and comfort we experience when we enjoy chocolate.
In studies scientists have found that at least 15% of men and 40% of women have serious chocolate cravings. Cravings for chocolate are usually most intense in the late afternoon and early evening. As chocolate has a high fat-content, this may explain why we crave chocolate at the end of the day when our energy is lower.
If feeling good isn’t enough to convince you that it’s worth the fat and calories, consider this: Chocolate contains flavonoids, plant compounds with potent antioxidant properties that attack free-radicals in our bodies. Cocoa beans contain large quantities of flavonoids; dark chocolate contains significantly higher amounts of flavonoids than does milk chocolate. Flavonoids in chocolate are called flavonols.
Research indicates that flavonols prevent fat-like substances in the bloodstream from oxidizing and clogging the arteries, and make blood platelets less likely to stick together and cause clots. This, in turn, helps to lower blood pressure and to keep it more even.
Back to free radicals. Chocolate has higher Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC) values than many common foods, including prunes and blueberries. ORAC values measure how powerful an antioxidant a substance is. Dark chocolate has more than 13,000 ORAC units and milk chocolate has about 6,700, according to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association in McLean, Va. Unsweetened powdered cocoa starts out with almost twice as much antioxidants as dark chocolate, but when it’s diluted with water or milk and sugar to make hot chocolate, the flavonoid total per serving plummets to about half that in milk chocolate. So, if you wish to use chocolate to boost your ORAC levels, you are wise to stick with dark chocolate, and the darker, the better.
Finally, as you have convincing evidence that chocolate isn’t bad for you (and it does not make your skin break out, by the way) here are some tips on choosing high-quality chocolate.
Choosing High-Quality Chocolate
Flavor: Chocolate should be well balanced, neither bitter nor too sweet.
Appearance: Chocolate should be shiny and evenly colored. However, even good chocolate can develop a “bloom” in the summer if exposed to humidity or moisture. This creates a whitish color to the chocolate but does not affect the flavor.
Aroma: Should be rich and flavorful, not burned, musty or with a chemical undertone.
Snap: Should break firmly and cleanly, not crumble or splinter.
Texture: Smooth and creamy, not waxy and gritty. Mouth-feel should be delicate and melt well on the tongue.
Aftertaste: Should linger pleasantly in the mouth.
A Few High-Quality Chocolate Brands
Now that you know what to expect from good chocolate, the next step is to try some high-quality brands of chocolate. In the last few years this has become easier as more companies are producing high-quality chocolate for the American market. Callebaut, El Rey, Guittard, Lindt, Republic de Cacao and Valhrona, are all excellent brands to experiment with, and there are new brands coming into the market all the time. Want a delightful way to spend an afternoon or evening? Hold a chocolate tasting party!
Store chocolate tightly wrapped in a cool, dry place. A glass jar in a cool cupboard is a good option. The temperature should not get higher than 75 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and no lower than 60 degrees in the winter. If absolutely necessary, chocolate can be stored in the refrigerator. If you do this, make sure that it is double-wrapped and in a plastic zip-lock bag with the air pressed out as chocolate easily absorbs odors from other foods.
Chocolate and moisture don’t mix. High humidity or moisture may cause a white “moisture bloom” on the surface of the chocolate. While this doesn’t look particularly appetizing, it usually doesn’t affect flavor.
In general, solid chocolate that is not mixed with other ingredients such as nuts or cream, will have a shelf life of at least six to twelve months or longer, depending on the quality of storage. When mixed with other ingredients, shelf life will be shorter.