The Chocoholics Guide to Chocolate
Theories Behind Chocolate Cravings
It is often said that the most commonly craved food in the world is chocolate. Some people even believe that they have such strong desires for chocolate that they couldn't live without it. The reasons behind this intense desire for chocolate are not completely understood, but theories abound.
People say that they are addicted to chocolate; they call themselves "chocoholics." But the true characteristics of addiction—chemical changes in the brain, physiological mechanisms like tolerance and withdrawal—are not remotely associated with chocolate consumption. In fact, what most people experience are merely cravings or strong desires for chocolate. Scientists have studied chocolate cravings over the years and, while several theories have developed, it seems that it's simply the unique smell, flavor and texture of chocolate that provide a satisfaction that few foods can.
There are several bioactive compounds in chocolate that theoretically can contribute to feelings of well-being. These include theobromine and caffeine, which are stimulants; tyramine and phenylethylamine, which are similar to amphetamine, a central nervous system stimulant; and anandamide, which can act as a cannabinoid mimic. However, all of these compounds are present only in trace amounts in chocolate and are found in many other commonly consumed foods that are not craved.
Interestingly enough, researchers have found that cocoa-filled capsules, which contained all of the same compounds as chocolate, did not satisfy cravings the way actual chocolate did. They and others have concluded that the pleasant sensory experience of eating chocolate is necessary to satisfy the desire. Sensory properties associated with chocolate include smooth, melt-in-your-mouth textures and sweet tastes commonly found in chocolates of all types.
It is often said that women yearn for chocolate more than men; in fact, 40 percent of women in the United States say they crave chocolate with a heightened desire before and during menses.
Additionally, a researcher in Spain recently identified compounds in chocolate and cocoa that are potentially neuroactive alkaloids. The compounds, called tetrahydro-beta-carbolines, are probably produced by fermentation and heating. It is not clear whether the tetrahydro-beta-carbolines have any biological significance, but because they have potential effects on the nervous system, they could possibly play a role in the desire for chocolate. Again, it is important to note that these same compounds are present in many other foods that are not typically craved, such as fruits
It is also believed that strong chocolate desires may be influenced in part by culture. A study of Spanish and American male and female subjects found that, although the frequency of chocolate craving was more than twice as high in American women as in American men, the gender difference was not seen in the Spanish. This would suggest that the desire is not a physiological phenomenon but more likely a cultural one.
In summary, it is widely believed that consuming chocolate provides a unique feeling of well-being that comes mainly from sensory pleasure. These sensory properties are the creamy textures and sweet tastes that leave people with a sense of contentment commonly associated with favorite chocolate products. Whether it be the sensory pleasures, gender differences, cultural influences or biological reasoning, many theories past and present continue to be associated with strong chocolate desires. Yet it is important to note that there is no conclusive scientific evidence to date to support the theory that chocolate cravings are pharmacological in nature.