Food for Thought: Is Chocolate Food for the Gods?

Alex Poplawsky, Editor

Originally published February 2007.

Chocolate has captivated the minds of many cultures throughout history. The civilizations of the Maya and Aztec considered chocolate to be an intoxicating food born from the gods. The Europeans adopted many of chocolate’s medicinal remedies and claimed it to be a cure for almost all diseases. Even though many of these historical claims are still unanswered today, modern advances in science have provided us with some clues on the brain altering attributes of chocolate.

sulcus57Chocolate is native to the New World and was consumed only in drink form by the early cultures of Mesoamerica over a millennium before the Spanish conquest. The main ingredient of chocolate, the cacao bean, was believed by the Maya to be descended from the god Sovereign Plumed Serpent after mortals were created from maize. In their culture, chocolate use was reserved primarily for high status adult males, such as priests, government officials, and military officers, for ritualistic purposes. Women and children were not allowed to drink chocolate because it was believed that they were unfit for its intoxicating effects.

Upon discovering chocolate in the New World, European physicians began to extensively write about the amazing medicinal properties of the Mesoamerican drink. Some even claimed that soldiers stationed in the Americas could be sustained solely on chocolate drinks for months without loosing weight. The Spanish eventually brought chocolate to Europe in the mid-16th century where, within the next 100 years, it was developed into the same solid food that we know chocolate as today. As time passed, European physicians wrote countlessly about how chocolate could cure almost any ailment. In the view of the neurosciences, chocolate was claimed to cure cognitive impairments such as insomnia, mental irritation, nervousness, seizures, low sexual appetite, and mental fatigue. Even the names given to the genus and species of the cacao plant depicted how chocolate was perceived by Europeans in the mid-18th century – Theobroma cacao (food of the gods).

Today, chocolate may not be regarded as highly as a medicinal remedy as it once was, but some of its supposed mind altering effects still exist in present popular culture. Cravings for chocolate and its mood uplifting effects are evidence to some that chocolate may be addictive. Many researchers have therefore searched for compounds in chocolate that have psychoactive effects. Several compounds of the stimulant amine family, such as caffeine, were found and are believed to be addictive. However, dark chocolate, which has the highest concentration of these amines, is perceived to be less addictive than its diluted cousin, milk chocolate. Also, two anandamine analogues are found in chocolate and are believed to have an indirect positive effect on cannabinoid receptors, which may produce a similar euphoric feeling as is experienced with cannabis use. This indirect effect does not account for the instantaneous mood change described by chocolate addicts or its short-lived pleasure that only lasts as long as the chocolate is in the mouth.

Rare photo displaying intoxicating effects of chocolate on early Mesoamericans.
Rare photo displaying intoxicating effects of chocolate on early Mesoamericans.

Another possibility lies in an interesting phenomenon that occurs to heroin addicts when deprived of their drug. They will experience cravings for sweet, which may hint at an overlap between our endogenous opioid system and chocolate craving behavior. It is already established that opioids, such as P-endorphins, are released to increase the palatability of foods during eating. Further evidence has shown that increased opioid release may stimulate the release of dopamine in the mesolimbic system, which may facilitate addiction. While these pathways may help explain addiction to food consumption in general, there is less evidence for them to be involved in something as specific as chocolate addiction.

The most convincing evidence thus far to explain chocolate addiction investigates the hedonic response associated with the orosensory properties of the sweet treat. When consuming chocolate, there is a unique combination of a sweet and fatty taste, a pleasing aroma, and a texture that melts in your mouth. This combination may make chocolate so palatable that it is irresistible to the body and mind. This explanation provides a simple yet interesting answer. It explains why the pleasurable sensations are as immediate as putting the chocolate in ones mouth and as short lived as it being fully eaten. However, this does not explain why the Mesoamericans felt chocolate’s intoxicating effects when their most common form lacked the same texture and was devoid of sugar.

The effect of chocolate on past cultures is seen with its ritualistic use by early Mesoamericans and its cure-all-ailments medical practice by the Europeans. Even present popular culture cannot escape believing that chocolate has some mood lifting and addictive quality. If it did escape, chocoholic would not be a word in the dictionary. So next time you fall into the chocolate river while scooping up a handful of that smooth indulgence, just remember it is not your fault that you disobeyed Willy Wonka. It’s his own damn fault for making that chocolate so orosensoriffic!

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