Chocolate and the Brain

Chocolate is a sublime food. All facets of the chocolate-eating experience lead to pleasure. The taste of chocolate, the aroma, the texture, the temperature that it melts at, which is a little lower than that of your body (34–37 ºC/93–98 ºF), and the sensuous and very satisfying feelings that it elicits, make it one of the world’s most beloved treats.

Chocolate is made from the cacao bean, which is actually the seed (and nut) of a fruit from an indigenous tree found in the South American jungle. Its botanical name is Theobroma cacao, which translated means "food of the gods." These trees grow best in the shade, with their eventual 17–20 cm (7–8 inch) fruit starting out as small green pods, but developing into red, yellow, blue or purple fruits, depending on the variety of cacao. Between 20 and 50 almond-shaped seeds or cacao beans are hidden inside a sweet thin pulp of this fruit. The fruit does not fall to the ground when ripe, but is eaten by forest animals like bats, parrots and monkeys.

A little history …

The Spanish conquistador Cortez, along with his soldiers, was amazed when they discovered the Aztecs, who had developed a unique culture and society, where cacao played a central role. These people used cacao as a form of money, revering it more than gold, which they used for ornamental purposes only. Unfortunately their culture and unique civilization didn't survive the Spanish invasion, and cacao made its way from the Spanish royal court to France, England, Belgium, Holland and eventually to the whole western world.

In the early 1800s, a Dutch chemist by the name of Coenraad Johannes Van Houten patented a unique process, whereby cacao was turned into a low-fat powder. This was of course the first form of cocoa powder. The next step, which launched Nestlé, and led to it becoming the largest food corporation in the world, was the discovery of a way to make milk powder by evaporation. Adding this substance to cocoa was the beginning of milk chocolate.

A sneaky trick of modern chocolate manufacturers

Today, cocoa butter, the substance in chocolate that makes it creamy and rich, is also extracted from the cocoa beans by manufacturers who want to cut corners, as they can make more money by selling it to the pharmaceutical industry, because cacao butter is very shelf-stable. They then replace the cocoa butter in the chocolate with cheaper, solvent extracted, inferior vegetable fats, such as soya and palm oil. Manufacturers have worked out that the right mixture of sugar and cocoa mass is 50:50 to get the kind of mouth feel that people enjoy the most. So, most chocolate is loaded with inferior fat and refined sugar, transforming it into anything but a brain superfood.

What’s so special about what’s inside chocolate?

Cacao contains a number of important compounds, one of them being antioxidants. In fact, there are researchers who believe that in its raw form, as cacao, it contains more antioxidants than any other substance in the world. By weight it contains more antioxidants than blueberries, red wine, acai, goji berries and pomegranates combined! It also contains magnesium, and as that mineral is in great demand in your body and brain, some researchers believe that people who crave chocolate are actually magnesium deficient and may be trying to self-medicate by eating chocolate.

Cacao also contains iron, chromium, manganese, zinc, copper and vitamin C. However, it must be raw to retain its vitamin C. Chocolate contains mostly saturated fats, with some monounsaturated fats and also the omega-6 essential fatty acid (EFA), which means that highly processed chocolate may contain some damaged fats, as omega-6 becomes damaged when exposed to high temperatures.

Is chocolate a "love" food?

Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine (PEA), an amphetamine-like compound, which harbors traces of a compound that is similar to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana. However this form of PEA doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) readily, meaning that you’d have to eat vast quantities of chocolate to feel its effects. The PEA that is produced naturally in the brain when you are in love is much more effective at eliciting the feelings of bliss and excitement that being in love produce.

Neurons naturally produce a chemical called anandamide, related to THC, which is a chemical that the body produces after exercise. Cacao is the only plant that contains this chemical. In addition, cacao also contains enzymes that delay the breakdown of this chemical, prolonging these pleasant feelings, which you then naturally associate with the eating of chocolate. Cacao also contains tryptophan, a mood-enhancing amino acid. Tryptophan is essential for the production of serotonin, a critically important neurotransmitter, which is responsible for balancing mood, appetite and sleep patterns. However, chocolate won’t help you fall asleep die to its heart-stimulating effects, so it’s best to avoid it from mid-afternoon.

How much caffeine does chocolate actually contain?

Chocolate does contain some caffeine, but more importantly a compound called theobromine. Interestingly, it is an effective antibacterial and causes the cardiovascular system to dilate, making the heart muscle work more efficiently. It also has much less of an effect on blood sugar than other stimulant-containing (caffeine) foods, but it can "hype" you up due to its heart-stimulating effect. Theobromine also has the ability, through various compounds that it contains, to reduce inflammation and the risk of cardiovascular clots. It is therefore a heart-healthy food.

Chocolate is a "happy" food

The giving and receiving of chocolate is associated in people's minds with positive events and feelings. Valentines day, Easter, birthdays,  and other special occasions are all great excuses to give our loved ones a special, delicious, chocolaty treat. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to this custom. When children are rewarded with chocolate after finishing their meal, they associate the treat with a reward for something they wouldn’t have done otherwise. This isn’t a good lesson, so rather encourage good chocolate as part of a healthy diet, not as a treat for eating vegetables, which should be enjoyed in their own right. 

What about ‘raw’ chocolate?

There is as yet no independent, third party, legal certification against which "raw" chocolate can be measured. Even the "raw" community isn’t in agreement regarding what the permissible processing temperature is for calling food raw, which can be between 40 and 47 ºC (104 and 118 ºF).

Cacao seeds (beans) undergo a number of processes on their way to becoming chocolate, many of which involve heat. Fermentation removes the bitterness of the beans, while drying the beans removes excess moisture, which is important during sorting, storing and shipping. Depending on how fermentation is done, the temperature can rise to above the uppermost temperature at which raw food is typically called cooked. Drying the beans can also lead to them being exposed to temperatures in excess of this upper limit. Even if the extra time and cost is taken to keep the temperature below the upper limit during these processes, the next stage of chocolate-making, the roasting, is what imbues chocolate with its distinctive flavor, and that temperature can’t be kept below 98 ºC (210 ºF) if the end product is to be enjoyed as conventional chocolate.

In addition, something that few people consider when they think about the enjoyment they derive from chocolate, is the conditions that chocolate is stored in when it has been harvested. There are no sanitary standards and regulations on the mostly third world farms where the majority of the world's chocolate is grown and initially stored and processed, which leads to the possible presence of pathogens if the beans are not roasted. The next stage, the grinding of the pieces of bean after shelling, which are now called "nibs," can only be accomplished if small quantities of nibs are ground up very slowly and for a short period of time, otherwise the temperature of the beans once again goes up past the upper "raw" temperature threshold. This would once again be more costly than the conventional process, where large quantities of nibs are ground up quickly.

Conching is the next stage of the chocolate-making process, during which it is again challenging to keep below the upper "raw" temperature threshold. Separating the cacao butter and powder is an optional process, but if undertaken, this uses hydraulic presses which again introduce heat in excess of the "raw" upper limit. Furthermore, the "raw" status of whatever sweetener is used in the product is also up for debate, as there are very few (even natural) sweeteners that can be called raw.

Finally, whether there are more enzymes in so-called raw chocolate is still under debate, as there is not one set temperature at which enzymes begin degrading. The temperature depends on the enzymes and the conditions they find themselves in. So, it may be best to focus on conventional chocolate, where farmers are paid a fair and just price for their "Fair Trade" chocolate. This is organic, 70%+ dark chocolate, containing unrefined sweeteners, as opposed to a product that doesn’t taste as good and which may not have all the health benefits that the fashionable and "raw" products claim to possess.

So, what is the "right" kind of chocolate?

Chocolate is one of the most pesticided crops in the world, and pesticides accumulate in fat. As we have fat-heavy brains, avoiding pesticides is therefore a priority, so to get the best benefit from chocolate it needs to be organic.

White chocolate only contains cocoa butter, not cocoa solids, so doesn’t have the same health benefits that dark chocolate which contains at least 70% cocoa mass has. That’s another reason to choose the best organic, raw, dark chocolate that only uses minimal unrefined sugar as a lovely treat, and you’ll also be getting some potent antioxidants along with cocoa flavanols and the fabulous mouth feel and textural pleasure.

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