Chocolate is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable and widely loved foods in the world, enjoyed across cultures and borders as an indulgent sweet treat. This sweet guilty pleasure had been considered a mood stabiliser long before the science backed it up, simply because it’s absolutely delicious and always has been.
No wonder the chocolate industry is forever growing, with new versions and takes on the good stuff appearing regularly. From classic cacao powder to white chocolate, nougat to truffles, and chocolate mixed with fruit, chilli and even salt, people just love exploring the taste and textures of the cocoa bean.
Many scientists and sweet advocates alike agree on chocolate’s mood-stabilising powers, which is reflected time and again in popular culture. Do you remember when in ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary,’ our beloved Bridget comforts herself with the chocolate ice cream after she realises she has ‘absolutely no messages’? Or as a kid, did you long to be Charlie, frolicking in the factory’s canals of melted chocolate? We sure did.
It’s a common picture not only reserved for Hollywood productions – dramatic scenes of chocolate coming to the rescue. Cmon, admit you’ve whipped up a batch of grandma’s famous brownies as a Friday night treat. Or you’ve reached for a brigadeiro recipe, just to cheer yourself up? We all have.
Chocolate has always been presented as a mood lifter, and today’s science can explain how it works. If you’re wondering why chocolate makes you happy, here are 4 IDEAL reasons to indulge.
FIRST, WHAT DO WE MEAN BY HAPPY?
Like a true, rigorous and in-depth study, let’s first define ‘happy’. Everybody has their own definition of happiness and there are different approaches to this state of mind: scientific, philosophical, evolutionary, and more.
But let’s be clear – no matter the definition of approach, inhaling some chocolate won’t turn your life into some sort of idyllic existence. Nope, this is a temporary state we’re talking about; a Freudian fulfilment of desire and instinct.
That said, eating chocolate can bring out a positive mindset and reduce negative feelings, as consuming cocoa sweets initiates the work of chemicals that boost pleasure reactions in our brains.
HOW HAPPINESS DEVELOPS IN OUR BRAIN
Over fifty years ago, psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner, working at McGill University in Canada, conducted a study that helped them discover the pleasure centre in the brain. Further research showed that there are several chemicals responsible for happy feelings.
According to NCBI, ‘In humans, pleasure encoding may reach an apex of cortical localization in a subregion that is mid-anterior and roughly mid-lateral within the orbitofrontal cortex of the prefrontal lobe, where neuroimaging activity correlates strongly to subjective pleasantness ratings of food varieties – and other pleasures such as sexual orgasms, drugs, chocolate, and music.’ Yep, we skimmed that one until ‘sexual orgasms’, too.
CHEMICALS THAT ACTIVATE HAPPINESS
It’s natural for both humans and animals to strive for happiness, due to these chemical reactions rather than some existential longing, and there are many ways to achieve that.
As mentioned above, it’s scientifically proven that some activities make you happy. One of them is eating chocolate as it initiates the production of specific chemicals in the human body. Here are the magical components of cacao that are responsible for happiness reactions. Brace yourself:
Theobromine, formerly known as xanthosis, is a bitter alkaloid found in the cacao plant, with the chemical formula C₇H₈N₄O₂. It can be traced in tea or coffee as well, but chocolate is its richest, most gratifying source. Like caffeine, it has stimulating effects on the brain, providing a mood boost, a sense of relaxation, and more besides.
However, don’t try to share this feeling of blissed out, chocolate happiness with your dog. Do you remember what they say about not feeding canines with chocolate? Theobromine is the reason why. Even though it gives you pleasure, it’s highly poisonous for many animals.
Anandamide, also known as N-arachidonoylethanolamine, is a fatty acid neurotransmitter derived from the non-oxidative metabolism of eicosatetraenoic, an essential omega-6 fatty acid. This substance is naturally produced in our brain, but you can find some in chocolate, too.
The word ‘anandamide’ originates from ‘ananda,’ the Sanskrit term that translates to ‘joy’ or ‘bliss,’ simply because it has mood-stabilising properties. Ananda affects the human body’s CB receptors similarly to THC, a psychoactive ingredient of cannabis. A case of the munchies satisfied by a bite of chocolate? That’s a double decker of bliss in some circles.
Phenethylamine is an organic compound and natural monoamine alkaloid informally called the molecule of love. It’s mostly associated with the ‘butterflies’ you feel in your stomach when you’re around someone you love. A lovely feeling, no doubt about it.
When you love (or fancy) someone, the brain releases high levels of PEA, which is linked with intense romantic feelings. That’s why we’re so happy when we’re in love; those happy hormones always hype us up! Chocolate has higher concentrations of Phenylethylamine than any other kind of food. You won’t feel in love after eating it, but it sure will make you feel better.
Even though sugar has no connection with cocoa, it’s also one of the ‘happy components’ of chocolate. It releases a variety of chemicals associated with pleasure, such as well known dopamine and serotonin. However, it’s an addictive substance, making chocolate hard to resist, and as such, should be approached both with caution and in moderation.
THE BOTTOM LINE
All the powerful chemicals mentioned above are available in small quantities in chocolate, but mixed together can entirely change your mood. Unfortunately, the substances metabolise quickly, so that happy, desire slaking feeling won’t last for long. Still, it’s more than enough to cheer you up and give you the touch of positivity you crave when you’re down.
Be careful with the amounts, though; dark chocolate is largely considered healthy in small doses, but it doesn’t mean you should consume a whole bar a day. Parking those advantages, chocolates (particularly the non-dark kinds), are also caloric and addictive. Everything in moderation, and you’ll be grand!