The Science of Chocolate

The season of gifting is here – more appropriately, the season of stuffing our faces is here. Now is also around the time when people get their oven mitts out and start baking. Rest assured, the common denominator to all of the above would be chocolate – the most loved ingredient of all time; and it isn’t without reason.

We know for a fact that chocolate is processed from cocoa beans, more technically called the cacao beans – the seeds of the fruit of Theobroma Cacao tree. The name of the tree holds all the explanation that we need to justify the absolute divine nature that chocolate possesses. Theobroma is a portmanteau of theo meaning ‘food’ and broma meaning ‘God’, which literally translates to ‘food of the Gods’. Gobsmacking, innit? Mexicans – or should I say, the Mayans and Aztecs – knew their priorities alright.

Chocolates – simply put – make us happy. For if it wasn’t for chocolate, what would have saved the day when your friend or partner was cross with you? Or when they are down and you want to lift their spirits up. It is the greatest pick-me-up in the history of pick-me-ups: the best peace offering and the ultimate comfort food. And here’s why.

All the giddiness felt while having chocolate points to the fact that it gives us a buzz. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise when one of the neurotransmitters that it releases in us is called Anandamide. The etymology of the compound hits very close to home as anand in Sanskrit means ‘bliss’. Anandamide releases dopamine in much the same way that THC – found in marijuana – does, but to a much milder extent.

Chocolate brings with it a symphony of sensations which can be largely attributed to the release of several other neurotransmitters. One of them being the namesake chemical, Theobromine – a stimulant paralleling caffeine in its effects: choosing to relax us over causing terrifying jitters. Another one of them is phenylethylamine; it evokes a feeling of elation almost analogous to the one felt when one’s in love. Explains why gifting on Valentine’s has become synonymous to a bunch of roses and a box of chocolates for the uncreative. It doesn’t stop with that; the serotonins released due to a chemical in chocolate can be responsible for arousing someone. Might be why many have come to claim it as an aphrodisiac.

Festivals/ holidays shouldn’t roll around the corner – all the chocolate companies and the restaurants start having a field day in exploiting our weaknesses. These are the times when we allow ourselves stretches of cheat days, because after all, it is only on an occasion. Rumours claiming that chocolates are beneficial to health is where chocoholics find solace in, keeping them guilt-free. But the chocolates produced commercially and devoured by the masses provide little to none of the rumoured benefits.

Not everything about chocolate can be sweet now, can it? Anyone who has tried their hand at baking and tasted raw cocoa powder in the process would know that it is face-scrunching bitter. That’s because it is majorly made up of cocoa solids obtained after extracting the cocoa butter from processed cacao seeds. Now, it is in these solids that lies the whole nutrition associated with chocolates. And their proportion plays a huge part in determining the health factor.

Three types of chocolate are available to us: dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate. Of these only dark chocolate has more than 60-70% pure cocoa while milk chocolate’s (widely sold in the market) requirement is to have only at least 10% of it. The devil of it all is white chocolate, having no pure cocoa whatsoever, only cocoa butter among others.

Cocoa solids have in them polyphenols and flavonoids contributing to various health benefits. But, in the name of removing its bitterness and adding flavour, they are processed with mostly unhealthy ingredients, such as milk, butter, sugar, etc. Adding milk especially can defeat the whole purpose in the way that it binds itself to the flavonoids making them unavailable to us. Thus, we miss out on fully utilising its potential cancer fighting properties, reduced cardiovascular risk and improved cognitive abilities. And we won’t have any ammo the next time we are confronted with our gluttony.

It goes without saying that it needs to be consumed in moderation. Anything taken over the limit does have its share of unfavourable side effects. In this case, they are nausea, anxiety, and headaches. Sounds nasty, doesn’t it?

With that piece of information, allow me to go tend to my craving that all the talking about chocolate has brought, for I ain’t a saint and being addicted to chocolate is my sin.

Deeksha Venkatesh

I like to read. Sometimes, I write. When I don't find myself in the bowels of YouTube. Or listening to pop songs on repeat till I hate them. Big-time guilty pleasure: romance. And the way to my heart? You had me at pizza.

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