This piece was originally published on February 19, 2013
As if she were confessing an addiction to hoarding, or a secret habit of eating chunks of earth—geophagia, if you want to be technical—my 28-year-old friend confided that she’s picked up a “healthy” new habit: Chocolate. Extra dark.
I’ve been friends with Emily Bronson since age two. “I think it may be the caffeine for me, that gives me a little jolt,” she emailed from her office in Massachusetts.
At all times, she keeps varyingly high concentrations of cacao in her desk drawer: “Theo: 85% dark, Eclipse Dagoba Bar: 87%, Trader Joe’s Swiss Dark Choc: 72% or Green and Black’s: 85%,” she lists. “I crave it around 3 p.m.”
Chocolate is loaded with flavonoid antioxidants—more than green tea, red wine, or an apple. This justification alone seems to defend the private euphoria of a square (or entire bar) here and there, right?
It was a question for the former chocolate addict Jill Escher, of Santa Cruz, also known as “The Sugar Slayer,” and author of the book Farewell Club Perma-Chub: A Sugar Addict’s Guide to Easy Weight Loss.
Escher minces no words:
“It’s not the taste we’re after, it’s that brain bomb which explodes after the first few bites, and then trails off into a lasting buzz, to be followed by a slump. Just like a drug,” says Escher.
Because it is a drug, Escher points out: “Chocolate is crack for nice people.”
“It has chemical properties that can render it addictive,” says Escher. “Combine it with sugar, which is also addictive on both endocrine and neurochemical levels, and then with hyper-palatable fat, and you have a Brain Bomb.”
Yes, there is some caffeine in chocolate—anywhere between 10 and 60 milligrams according to the Chocolate Information Center (sponsored by Mars Inc.), but that’s about as much as a decaf cup of coffee. Caffeine is far from the only drug in chocolate.
As the last of the red foil wrappers are swept into waste baskets across the country, there could be no better time to get to the heart of the matter: sugar aside, what makes cacao so addictive for so many people—starting with Moctezuma II, who is said to have consumed some fifty cups a day, cold and whisked into a froth with vanilla and spices?
Five centuries after the Aztec emperor handed his trusted nemesis, Hernan Cortes, a goblet of the pure stuff, cacao’s roasted, processed, and sweetened form, cocoa, drives a billion-dollar chocolate industry.
And while the added sugar and hydrogenated fats are largely responsible for the pleasurable qualities of modern chocolate, “raw” and sundried cacao, which can be picked up at your local New Leaf Market or Staff of Life, may be making a comeback. It tastes a bit like earth, but it’s touted for everything from aphrodisiac effects and increased brain function, to cardiovascular and anti-depression benefits.
Austrailian nutritionist Teya Skae, who studies the correlation between nutrition and brain health, breaks it down in her article Examining the Properties of Chocolate and Cacao for Health:
Aside from zinc, calcium, and magnesium, which is a muscle relaxant associated with feelings of calmness, says Skae, cacao contains the chemicals phenylethylamine (PEA) and the cannabinoid neurotransmitter anandaminde.
“PEA is an adrenal-related chemical that we create naturally when we’re excited,” says Skae. “It also plays a role in feeling focused and alert because it causes your pulse rate to quicken, resulting to a similar feeling to when we are excited or fall in love.”
Skae pinpoints anandaminde as the “bliss” chemical, or, “chocolate amphetamine,” responsible for increasing mood and decreasing depression.
According to Women’s Health, the average chocolate bar also contains five times the antioxidant flavanoids of an apple, and a 2012 study in Germany found that a piece of dark chocolate a day lowered blood pressure and lowered the risk of heart attack and stroke.
And while Skae says the bliss chemical in cacao is not addictive like caffeine, there seems to be an army of chocaholics supporting the contrary.
The short and sweetly obvious: it isn’t the cacao itself that is unhealthy—it’s the sugar and milk and saturated fats that are added. If raw cacao beans don’t deliver the desired brain bomb (which they might), opt for dark chocolate, not milk chocolate.
And who knows, maybe the return of the cacao pod could change the world.
“We have an epidemic of SSRI use and dependency, not to mention tragic fetal SSRI exposure,” says Escher. “Perhaps someone should study cocoa beans as an alternative.”