The psychology of chocolate

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We live in a world increasingly obsessed with chocolate.

The most recent market update from the World Cocoa Foundation reported that 4.8 million metric tons of cocoa were produced globally in 2012, a 13% increase from 2008[1]. In many cultures, chocolate is given as a traditional gift on special occasions, such as Valentine’s Day and Hanukkah.

People crave chocolate—one study found that chocolate-specific cravings account for almost half of all food cravings[2]. Self-proclaimed “chocoholics” even claim they are addicted.

The upside for those who can’t seem to get enough of it? Chocolate has some surprising benefits.

In candy form, chocolate isn’t usually considered health food. A 100-gram serving of milk chocolate packs 535 calories. 52% of standard milk chocolate is made up of sugar, and another 30% is fat[3].

Despite these frightening figures, new research suggests that chocolate consumption may actually benefit cardiovascular health[4]. The reason? It is made from the beans of the cacao tree, which naturally contain flavanols, a nutrient with antioxidant properties.

Flavanols have mental benefits as well. A large study of individuals between the ages of 23 and 98 found that frequent chocolate consumption was associated with better performance on various cognitive functioning tests, even when controlling for cardiovascular, lifestyle, and dietary factors[5].

And, in an experiment, consuming a beverage high in cocoa flavanols was found to increase performance on cognitively draining tasks, like counting backward from 1,000 by 3’s[6].

If you’re seeking health benefits from your chocolate consumption, there is a rule of thumb: the darker the chocolate, the higher the flavanol content. Avoid cocoa powder made with alkali or “Dutch” processing, which removes the flavanols.

Health and cognitive benefits aside, why do people crave chocolate?

The answer is partly chemical. While the flavanols in chocolate aren’t addictive in the traditional sense, they do have psychological benefits that keep people coming back. After consuming flavanol-rich chocolate, people report feeling calmer, less anxious, and more content[7,8].

But the rich composition, texture, and smell of chocolate appear to play an even bigger role in chocolate cravings[9]:

  • People are hardwired to prefer sugary and high-fat foods—and chocolate is high in both[9].
  • Cocoa butter, a defining ingredient of chocolate candy, melts at body temperature. The resulting melt-in-your-mouth sensation contributes to the pleasurable experience of eating chocolate[10].
  • The distinctive aroma of cocoa may also contribute to chocolate-specific cravings. White chocolate, which doesn’t emit a chocolate smell, doesn’t appear to satisfy cravings as well as the real deal[11].

Culture also plays a role in cravings[12,13]. For instance, in Spain, people crave chocolate after meals and while studying, but Americans tend to get their cravings in the evening[12]. Additionally, Spanish women typically don’t experience the menstrual-related cravings that many American women have[12].

Whether or not you personally crave it, chocolate has the capacity to boost your health, fuel your brain, and lift your spirits. As Charles M. Schulz once said, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

?References

1. World Cocoa Foundation. (2014). Cocoa market update. WCF: worldcocoafoundation.org.
2. Weingarten, H.P., & Elston, D. (1991). Food cravings in a college population. Appetite, 17, 167-175.
3. United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. (May, 2016). National nutrient database for standard reference release 28: 19120, candies, milk chocolate. USDA: ndb.nal.usda.gov.
4. Hannum, S.M., Schmitz, H.H., & Keen, C.L. (2002). Chocolate: A heart-healthy food? Show me the science! Nutrition Today, 37, 103-109.
5. Crichton, G.E., Elias, M.F., & Alkerwi, A. (2016). Chocolate intake is associated with better cognitive function: The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study. Appetite, 100, 126-132.
6. Scholey, A.B., French, S.J., Morris, P.J., Kennedy, D.O., Milne, A.L., & Haskell, C.F. (2010). Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 24, 1505-1514.
7. Sathyapalan, T., Beckett, S., Rigby, A.S., Mellor, D.D., & Atkin, S.L. (2010). High cocoa polyphenol rich chocolate may reduce the burden of the symptoms in chronic fatigue syndrome. Nutrition Journal, 9:55, 1-5.
8. Pase, M.P., Scholey, A.B., Pipingas, A., Kras, M., Nolidin, K., Gibbs, A., …, & Stough, C. (2013). Cocoa polyphenols enhance positive mood states but not cognitive performance: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 27, 451-458.
9. Bruinsma, K., & Taren, D.L. (1999). Chocolate: Food or drug?. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 99, 1249-1256.
10. Rozin, P., Levine, E., & Stoess, C. (1991). Chocolate craving and liking. Appetite, 17, 199-212.
11. Michener, W., & Rozin, P. (1987). Pharmacological versus sensory factors in the satiation of chocolate craving. Physiology & Behavior, 56, 419-422.
12. Zellner, D.A., Garriga-Trillo, A., Centeno, S., & Wadsworth, E. (2004). Chocolate craving and the menstrual cycle. Appetite, 42, 119-121.
13. Yoon, C.K. (1999, January 26). Chocolate lovers are made, not born, science learns. nytimes.com.