Chocolate’s Sweet Science

Forget poets and philosophers. Scientists, studying the chemistry of the heart, are the ones who can explain our obsession with chocolate. We crave chocolate when we’re feeling blue, they tell us, because it contains phenylethylamine, a chemical that may raise endorphin levels in the brain. Other cocoa chemicals, such as theobromine and caffeine, are believed to increase alertness. And anandamide reportedly stimulates the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, making us “feel good.”

You probably won’t notice a difference after a bite or two, however. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a 130-pound person would have to eat 25 pounds of chocolate in one sitting to get any mind-altering effect.

What other health benefits might come in a heart-shaped box? Take this quiz to find out.

True or false? Chocolate reduces heart disease risk.

True or false? Chocolate triggers migraine headaches and breakouts.

True or false? Milk chocolate is better for your heart than dark chocolate.

True or false? Eating chocolate helps you live longer.

1. True. Researchers believe chocolate’s natural antioxidants, called flavonoids, improve your odds against cardiovascular disease. These compounds may reduce blood clotting and ease blood-vessel constriction, which helps prevent deposits from attaching to artery walls. Preliminary research suggests the amount in a 40-gram serving (1.4 ounces) of commercial chocolate may be enough to produce measurable benefits.

2. True. By altering cerebral blood flow and releasing norepinephrine, some chemicals in chocolate, such as caffeine, phenylethylamine, and theobromine, can trigger migraines. But a large amount of these chemicals are needed to start the migraine process, and for most sufferers, chocolate alone does not initiate the migraine chain reaction. And, although chocolate doesn’t actually cause acne, the sugars in most chocolate products can worsen skin eruptions. High-glycemic-load carbohydrates have been shown to cause the hormonal changes that occur with acne.

3. False. Dark chocolate has more antioxidant power than milk chocolate because the dark contains more cocoa-bean liquor and therefore more flavonoids. A 40-gram serving (1.4 ounces) of milk chocolate typically contains around 400 milligrams of antioxidants, about the same as a glass of red wine. A serving of dark chocolate contains more than twice that. And unsweetened powdered cocoa has almost twice as many antioxidants as dark chocolate.

4. True, up to a point. One 1998 Harvard study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, linked all candy consumption, including chocolate, with extending life by a year. Unfortunately, more isn’t better, because eating too much chocolate can lead to weight gain, and obesity is linked to a shorter lifespan. Realistically, chocolate is too high in calories and fat to ever be considered a health food. But even the study’s authors admitted to eating an average of one bar a day each.

—Kathy Summers