Plenty of people are passionate about chocolate, but few are acquainted with all the beautiful reasons why chocolate is more of a full-body experience than any other dessert ingredient could hope to be. As a chef and nutritionist who goes wild for the details of various foods’ effects on our minds, spirits, and bodies (and of course, as someone who thinks chocolate is heavenly), I’ve researched this ingredient copiously, dedicated a chapter of one of my books to it, and will tell anyone who’ll listen about chocolate’s remarkable chemical attributes. Below, we’ll explore why chocolate isn’t just delicious, it’s a natural wonder in the form of a bean.
What is all that great stuff in it? Let’s do the run-down.
First on the list of chocolate’s magical qualities is phenylethylamine. P.E.A. is the chemical your brain releases when you’re in love. The cultural history of giving chocolates for Valentine’s Day or other romantic gifting suddenly makes more sense, no? By the mid-1800s, Cadbury had created a heart-shaped package of chocolates just for this purpose, and it remains a mainstay in our society nearing two centuries later. Phenylethylamine triggers the release of endorphins and increases both dopamine and serotonin activity.
Taken alone as a supplement usually sourced from algae, P.E.A. is considered a potent antidepressant.
A stimulant that increases heart rate, theobromine isn’t unique to chocolate—but the only other food with similar quantity of it, macambo seeds, never took off in popularity. Similar to caffeine, theobromine blocks adenosine receptors; that means it keeps you from getting tired. Theobromine has a longer half life than caffeine, so even though you might feel its energetic effects less than you do from caffeine, you feel them for longer.
Wanting chocolate while PMS’ing before you get your period isn’t a food craving so much as it’s a legitimate bodily need. That’s because chocolate contains soothing, relaxing magnesium —which beyond reducing anxiety also helps relieve cramps. For cramp relief, magnesium is best paired with vitamin B6. Chocolate brand Moodygirl makes it possible to get that needed B6 in their “For That Time of the Month” chocolates formulated specifically for PMS relief. It contains added B6, as well as additional magnesium.
Ah, the pick-me-up that so many of us know, love, and consume on the daily. One ounce of dark chocolate contains about 24 mg of caffeine, so it’s no equivalent to a shot of espresso or an 8-ounce cup of coffee (which contains closer to 80 to 100 milligrams), but it’s enough to get a little tingle of energy—especially when you remember that it’s being combined with theobromine, another stimulant. Because the absorption of caffeine is slowed in your system by fat, which chocolate contains no shortage of thanks to the amount of cocoa butter in its molded versions, this effect is even more mellowed and smooth. (Pro tip: if you like coffee but find it too stimulating, or if you experience a stronger rush and crash from coffee than you’d prefer, have it instead with heavy cream or full-fat coconut milk. The difference is palpable!)
A precursor to serotonin, chocolate isn’t a top food for this relaxing chemical. Rather, tryptophan is most known for being in the turkey eaten on Thanksgiving, when a post-meal nap is a common occurrence. While some of the reason for that nap is thanks to the rush of blood needed in your stomach to digest a monstrous meal, the remainder is because l-tryptophan is relaxing and sleep inducing. It requires carbohydrates to activate, meaning that poultry or other high tryptophan foods eaten alone don’t induce sleepiness. Chocolate has those carbs by way of sugar, so even though it doesn’t have a ton of tryptophan, you do receive the full benefit of the quantity it contains.
Foods rich in polyphenols, which are a breed of antioxidant, are associated with improved moods. These antioxidants have a neuroprotective effect on the brain, helping to prevent cognitive and psychiatric disorders. One study notes that “considerable attention has been ascribed to botanical and herbal polyphenols found in foods and dietary supplements, as they are relatively inexpensive, have fewer perceived side effects than many pharmaceuticals, and are non-invasive compared to other forms of treatment.” Polyphenol content in chocolate varies based on where the cacao beans were sourced, but all chocolate contains these valuable antioxidants.
No matter what your version of emotional pleasure enhancement is—stimulation, relaxation, or general mood boosting—chocolate’s got it in melty, creamy, sweet form. You can’t always rely on others to make you feel in love, alert, or relaxed, but you can always depend on chocolate.