Nibbled on some chocolate today? You’re not the only one. This week will account for 5 percent of the total chocolate sales for the year in the United States—a whopping $345 million spent on more than 58 million pounds of the sweet stuff. Whew! It’s no secret that people love chocolate, but why do we love it so much? Turns out, your body might actually be asking you for it.
Chocolate Lovers of the Past
Modern day humans aren’t the first ones to regularly enjoy chocolate. Around 2,000 years ago, the Mayans started roasting cacao beans for consumption and during the 14th century the Aztecs began creating cacao drinks and using the beans for medicinal purposes. After spreading to Europe and taking on a sweetened form (cocoa), the wealthy considered it to have nutritional, medicinal and aphrodisiac purposes. By the 1700s cocoa reached the masses—and in 1847 the first piece of solid chocolate was born.
Theories on Chocolate Cravings
So, there’s got to be something to this two thousand year old treat, right? Experts agree that eating chocolate is pleasurable and some people crave it—but there are different reasons and theories as to why. One reason might be the release of a chemical called anandamide, which results in a calming and relaxing feeling. Other ingredients like theobromine (gives you a caffeine-like jolt), tryptophan (increases your stash of serotonin, your happy hormone) and phenethylamine (triggers the release of endorphins), are believed to play a role in cravings.
Another chocolate expert, Dr. Philip K. Wilson, asserts that the potential aphrodisiac properties need to be further researched. He was quoted in a BBC article, saying, “It’s difficult to tease apart which chemicals may be contributing to which psychological functions. There are over 500 chemicals in consumer chocolate products, so there’s a lifetime of chemical analysis to still be done.”
Other experts say it’s the sensory reaction chocolate provides that makes us love it. The smell, the taste—even the feel of chocolate melting in your mouth—all trigger a positive experience we want to relive.
The So-Glad-It’s-True Health Benefits
Whatever the cause, we sure do like the result—and somewhat surprisingly, it turns out certain chocolates pose health benefits. But it’s important you’re not going overboard with your chocolaty treats—and you’re choosing the right kinds for your health. Pick an organic, dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 65 percent or higher and stick to less than 3 ounces a day. Remember: The extra chocolate will add calories, so increase your exercise or cut calories elsewhere. Here are just a few of the benefits researchers have discovered:
A healthier heart! How perfect for Valentine’s Day, right? More than 100 studies, reviewed by Harvard University School of Public Health, demonstrate that cocoa provides increased blood flow, decreased clotting and improved cholesterol. Other research has shown people with high blood pressure have seen significant improvements in blood pressure by eating 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate a day. (It’s important to note, the participants had to cut 400 calories out of their diet to make room for the daily chocolate.)
Potential brain boosts. Preliminary research suggests chocolate may increase blood flow to the brain—improving memory, attention span, reaction time and problem-solving skills.
Smoother, softer skin. Dark chocolate contains antioxidant chemicals—flavonoids—which are thought to prevent cell damage and inflammation. A German study revealed that women who consumed chocolate enriched with additional flavonoids had skin that was less dry, red and scaly after three months.