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19 June 2009

Chocolate - oh, the love of it

You don't just want that chocolate. You crave it. You covet it. You think you'll die without it. But are you truly addicted to it?

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You don't just want that chocolate. You crave it. You covet it. You think you'll die without it.

But are you truly addicted to it?

Maybe, maybe not.

It's been known for a while that chocolate contains an assortment of substances that may be addictive, including caffeine, magnesium and cannabinoid-like fatty acids, similar to those in marijuana.

But now, researchers in Spain say you can add to that list tetrahydro-beta-carboline alkaloids, also found in alcoholic beverages and suspected contributors to alcoholism.

These alkaloids may make you feel happy, the researchers say. And the darker the chocolate, apparently, the happier you get.

"The new alkaloids were found during research attempting to find possible active chemicals that may help chocolate cravings," says Tomas Herraiz, a researcher at the Institute of Industrial Fermentation at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research in Madrid, Spain.

Herraiz and his colleagues found what he describes as significant though small amounts of the alkaloids in all chocolate, with the highest amount -- about 7 micrograms per gram -- found in the darkest chocolate.

That's probably because dark chocolate contains the most cocoa, he says.

"This group of active alkaloids has deserved much interest in neurochemistry for their potential effects on the central nervous system," he says. It's thought the alkaloids may increase the amounts of serotonin and other chemicals in the brain, he says. "Then, these chemicals in chocolate might hypothetically exhibit effects on the chemistry of the brain, resulting in an improved mood, although this remains to be proven," Herraiz says.

But, he adds, so-called chocolate addicts do report a "heightened sense of well-being" when they're eating chocolate that ultimately affects their mood. The findings appear in a recent issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Fergus Clydesdale, head of the department of food sciences at the University of Massachusetts and an advisor to Mars, the candy company, says he's skeptical that chocolate is physiologically addictive, though he stressed he has not yet seen the latest study.

We’re all born with sweet tooth

It's true that we're all born with a sweet tooth of sorts, Clydesdale says. Studies have shown, for instance, that sweet-tasting substances are the only ones babies in the womb respond to. And recent research suggests that we may have a sweet tooth or a salt tooth, and that most of us tend to one side or the other.

"Some people like chocolate -- and really like it -- and others can take it or leave it," Clydesdale says.

But beyond that?

"I'm very skeptical of the term 'addiction,' which I use for cigarettes and alcohol," Clydesdale says. Even anecdotal data about chocolate "addicts" has failed to come up with individuals who truly need the candy daily, he says.

"They don't have chocolate stashed under the car seat," he says.

Herraiz says we don't yet know just why chocolate wreaks its magic on us, but cravings may be due in part to chocolate's "unique sensory properties," which include fat, sugar, texture and flavor. "But it is still not scientifically understood," he says.

"The chocolate craving is real, but we don't know if the reason for that is just physiological," Herraiz says. "Perhaps it is a combination of several reasons, including both physiological and psychological."

In the meantime, Clydesdale says most people should feel free to indulge their cravings -- at least in limited quantities. Chocolate is, he says, a "fairly decent" source of calcium, and the latest research suggests it may have antioxidant properties that could reduce your cholesterol and protect against blood clots that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

"As long as it's taken in moderation, it can be part of a healthy diet," Clydesdale says.

 
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