Have you ever wondered whether it’s possible to become addicted to chocolate? What’s really behind those chocolate cravings? From chemical reactions to sense memory, here’s a look at five factors which play a part.
While it would great to be able to use a medical excuse for a sudden urge to eat chocolate, the truth is, chocolate cravings are more often related to emotions than physical health. Many people eat to soothe themselves, and chocolate can be an excellent aid for a case of the blues. The act of eating chocolate causes the brain to release serotonin and endorphins, which are opiates that cause feelings of well-being and happiness.
As far as edible substances go, chocolate isn’t nearly as addictive as high fructose corn syrup, yet it has a worse reputation than Coca-Cola for being addictive! However, recent studies have found that chocolate contains the alkaloid group tetrahydro-beta-carbolines, which are also found in alcohol. These alkaloids have been found to affect mood and are a possible cause of alcoholism.
Dark chocolate contains more of these potentially addictive alkaloids than other types of chocolate, but it’s also healthier for you. So, while chocolate isn’t characterized as a stereotypically addictive substance, the fact that it is enjoyable to consume plus the presence of mood-altering alkaloids can lead to cravings and overeating.
Chocolate cravings tend to affect women more than men. Chocolate contains many naturally occurring minerals, including magnesium, which can be lacking in women, particularly during PMS. So start thinking of those monthly chocolate cravings as a wake-up call that you may need to up your mineral intake, and once you’ve had your fill of green leafy vegetables, then you can savor that chocolate bar you’ve been saving.
Another bliss-inducing chemical found in chocolate is phenylethylamine, a natural alkaloid which is released in the brain when you fall in love—and when you eat a piece of chocolate. Phenylethylamine can also cause headaches, though, so don’t go overboard trying to replicate that “just fell in love” feeling!
Chocolate activates the pleasure, memory and reward centers in the brain, which can explain a lot about cravings. The taste memory (aka “sense memory”) of all the chocolate you’ve eaten during your lifetime and the pleasure it brought competes with the survival-centered part of you that knows “just one more piece” isn’t so good for you. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather enjoy just one piece of Mast Brothers chocolate (stay tuned for more on them next month) than endure the uncomfortable feeling of overindulgence.
What do you think? Is chocolate on your list of addictions or do you think of it as a treat and nothing more?
Editor’s Note: Half a bar of Scharffen Berger 70% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate may or may not have disappeared during the editing of this post.
Kate Steffens is a pastry chef, writer, DJ, artist, designer and all-around Renaissance woman. She is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and the University of Texas at Austin. She runs the rock-and-roll chocolate company, Straight Outta Chocolate. When she's not elbow deep in chocolate, you can find her reading, gardening, working on art projects and listening to old records.