The rainforest tree from which chocolate derives is Theobroma cacao, named by the 18th century Swedish scientist Carl von Linne’. Botanical experts offer differing opinions regarding the origin of cacao. New genetic testing seems to have settled the matter, pointing to the Orinoco Valley of Venezuela as the first place where the tree grew. Wild cacao then presumably spread up into Mexico, where it was first cultivated. The tree ranges between four and eight meters in height, and its cinnamon brown trunk usually does not exceed two meters in length. The branches of the cacao tree are covered with shiny, dark green leaves about ten inches long and three inches wide. Though the tree bears fruit and flowers all year around, usually there are two harvest seasons for gathering the fruit. The actual months of harvest vary somewhat depending upon the location of the plantation.
Cacao trees bear large, distinctive football-shaped fruit pods which jut out directly from the trunk and the lower branches. Young fruit pods tend to be greenish in color. As they mature over the course of five to six months, they become elliptical in shape and bright red or yellow in color. The fruit pods average about nine inches in length and typically contain thirty to forty almond-sized seeds (cocoa beans) nestled in a pale white flesh. These seeds are made into the heavenly food loved around the world, chocolate.
The three varieties of Theobroma cacao whose beans are used in the making of chocolate are criollo, forastero and trinitario. Compared to the other two varieties, criollo cacao bears longer, pointed pods with deep ridges, and white seeds. Criollo is delicate and sensitive to variations in climate and atmosphere, and usually produces a bean with more sophisticated flavor. Many strains of each variety have been bred and refined.
Agents of Bliss and Love
Chocolate is a complex material possessing numerous compounds that act upon the the brain, producing a sense of delight that no other substance can replicate. Chocolate is surprisingly good for health, especially for the heart. Cocoa, the primary ingredient in finished chocolate, is rich in antioxidant polyphenols, a group of protective chemicals found in many plant foods including red wine and tea. The polyphenols in chocolate help to reduce the oxidation of LDL or so-called bad cholesterol, a major risk factor in coronary disease. Additionally, polyphenols inhibit blood platelets from clumping together, reducing the risk of atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries.
“After water, cocoa is the single healthiest substance you can put in your mouth. It can easily replace a number of psychiatric drugs for mood, plus it produces the same chemistry in the brain that occurs when we fall in love.” - Chris Kilham, WellBella
From a cardiovascular health standpoint, the very best ways to benefit from the heart-enhancing effects of chocolate are either to consume cocoa powder or to eat a moderate amount of semi-sweet dark chocolate. Cocoa powder can be used liberally to make hot cocoa, with milk or water and can be added to blender drinks and baked goods. Cocoa powder contains little fat, and no sugar. Sweeten lightly, but keep the sugar content down. If you go the finished chocolate route, keep your consumption to about half a 3.5 ounce bar of semi-sweet dark chocolate daily.
Our interests here concern enhancement of mind and mood, and the experience of love. In this regard, the first two compounds in chocolate to consider are caffeine and theobromine. Caffeine, an alkaloid, is the most widely consumed stimulant on earth. According to numerous medical studies caffeine is beneficial to overall health,. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, stimulates the flow of blood in the brain, and increases secretion of the very important neurotransmitter serotonin. Caffeine enhances alertness, facilitates thought formation, and decreases fatigue. This alkaloid also improves mood overall, lifts the spirits, and enhances both cardiovascular function and respiration.
Taken by adults at a dose of 300 milligrams or less per day, caffeine is safe and beneficial. Chocolate is a modest caffeine source, with a 50 gram piece of dark chocolate yielding between 10 and 60 milligrams of caffeine, as compared with a five ounce cup of coffee, which can yield up to 180 milligrams. Modest amounts of caffeine in chocolate provide a healthy stimulant effect, suitable for consumption by all adults and children, except for the unusually sensitive or hyperactive.
“While there are a great many agents in nature which boost libido and enhance sexual function, chocolate alone actually promotes the brain chemistry of being in love.” - Chris Kilham, Fox News
Theobromine, caffeine’s chemical cousin, occurs at a greater concentration, about 250 milligrams in a 50 gram bar of dark chocolate. Like caffeine, theobromine is a central nervous system stimulant, though it is milder in its effects. Theobromine is a stronger cardiac stimulant than caffeine and not nearly as well studied. This compound has a different chemical structure, and is presumed to possess unique mood enhancing effects.
Chocolate gets right to the heart of sexual pleasure by increasing the brain’s level of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical. Serotonin plays a major role in positive mood, emotional health, proper sleep and balanced appetite, contributing to numerous behavioral and physiological functions. Decreased serotonin is a well known factor in cases of depression. Increased brain serotonin promoted by chocolate increases sexual excitation, desire and responsiveness. Women have more serotonin in their systems than men and appear to be more sensitive to chocolate. Chocolate provides a mood boost to women during PMS and menstruation, when serotonin levels are often down. It also puts women in the mood for love. Men and women with depleted serotonin levels demonstrate increased aggressive sexual tendencies, a higher rate of masturbation, and increased promiscuity. Violence, aggressive behaviors, and higher rates of suicide have all been associated with reduced brain levels of serotonin. Many people consume chocolate as a form of self medication, whether they are aware of the fact or not. Chocolate’s serotonin elevating activity helps to modify mood in positive ways and acts as a sexual sweetener. These serotonin-related effects enhance the sense of closeness between lovers.
Probably the most influential love compound in chocolate is PEA, phenethylamine. This chemical, which occurs in chocolate in small quantities, stimulates the nervous system and triggers the release of pleasurable opium-like compounds known as endorphins. PEA also potentiates the activity of dopamine, a neurochemical directly associated with sexual arousal and pleasure. PEA acts as a potent antidepressant in both sexes and rises during periods of romance. The giddy, restless feelings that occur when we are in love are due to a great extent to PEA, which significantly increases in the brain at that time, and when we achieve orgasm. Some scientists dismiss this notion, claiming that the PEA in chocolate is metabolized too quickly to produce a significant mood-altering effect, but others disagree. Why else would chocolate be so inextricably intertwined with love and romance? While there are a great many agents in nature which boost libido and enhance sexual function, chocolate alone actually promotes the brain chemistry of being in love.
The popular drug cannabis (marijuana), contains a group of compounds called cannabinoids. Of these, THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, causes the high associated when that plant is consumed. Cannabinoids are found in only two other places. One is in the human brain, where a mind-altering cannabinoid named anandamide is manufactured. This same extraordinary chemical is also found in chocolate.
Anandamide’s name derives from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss. Cannabis and chocolate and the human brain all share this bliss-inducing agent. In the human brain, anandamide binds to the same receptor sites as THC from cannabis. Anandamide produces a feeling of euphoria. This compound may account for why some people become blissed-out when they eat chocolate. The human brain is a marvellous and mysterious organ. Tickle the right neurons with delicious chocolate, and all heaven breaks loose.
Not everybody will fall madly in love, become highly sexually aroused, or swoon with ecstatic bliss after a bite of good chocolate. Individual chemistry plays a major role in how people react to chocolate, as it does with almost everything else. Chocolate may produce a modest effect in some people, but it will make others swoon.