Food of the Gods?
Just a little nerdy stuff. Ancient Mayans believed the kakaw (cacao) was discovered by the gods in a mountain that also contained other delectable foods to be used by them. People have used cacao going back at least to 1910 B.C. Early recipes for cacao entailed grinding up the seeds into a sludgy beverage with maize, chili, vanilla, and honey. Yummy! This must have been a great way to start the day.
Botanists (actually, that busy boy Linnaeus) gave it the scientific name, Theobroma cacao (see the original in Species Plantarum, 1753, if your Latin is up to snuff). He chose the name ‘theo’ (from Greek, theos, meaning ‘god’) and ‘broma’ (from Greek, meaning food). There you have it… food of the gods.
Now to that chemistry that makes it so good.
Goodies in Cacao
James Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases list nearly 200 known substances that have been isolated from Theobroma cacao. The bulk of them are fats, with a smattering of alkaloids, polyphenols, and starch. Regarding the alkaloids, urban myths claim that cacao either has lots of caffeine or none at all. In reality, it has a small amount equivalent to what you might find in decaffeinated coffee. The main stimulant alkaloid is actually a substance called theobromine, which has a much milder effect than does its compatriot, caffeine.
If you were to take a spoonful of this seed powder (think baker’s unsweetened chocolate powder), you would gag. That’s why the early Meso-Americans cut it with maize and flavored it with chili, vanilla, and honey. Wouldn’t you?
That awful bitter flavor of raw cacao is also behind basic European recipes for chocolate, once cacao arrived from the Old World. In Europe is where it became a confection that everyone knows and loves – i.e., cacao with dairy and sugar added, to make chocolate.
Brain Cannabinoids in Chocolate
Scientists call certain substances ‘brain cannabinoids’ because their effects are mediated primarily by something called cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system. It is a silly name in some ways, since cannabinoids are plant substances and our brain receptors are… well, human. (Other animals have them, too.) They got this name from early studies on the effects of cannabinoids on our native brain receptors.
Now along comes the real reason that we have these receptors. It is not, as die-hard members of NORML would have you believe, that we co-evolved with marijuana. It is because we developed receptors for native neurotransmitters… DUH! It’s just that scientists didn’t know what they were until 1992, so we got stuck with calling them cannabinoid receptors. Based on this discovery, our natural neurotransmitters are now referred to as endocannabinoids.
THC and Anandamide
The discovery in 1992, by Devane et al., was of a natural substance, called anandamide, that was the native neurotransmitter that they had been looking for. This was a major discovery. Since that time anandamide has been found to have a wide variety of roles. In regard to chocolate, though, the roles of most interest are in the regulation of feeding behavior and in the neural generation of motivation and pleasure.
Feeding behavior? Motivation? Pleasure? If we are talking about real cannabinoids, we could understand feeding behavior (munchies?) and pleasure. Maybe not so much motivation!
Now we come to how this ties into chocolate. It starts with a 1996 article in Nature that described the discovery of brain cannabinoids (i.e., endocannabinoids), including anandamide, in chocolate.
Let’s be clear here: THC is made only by plants; anandamide is a native neurotransmitter in animals that happens to be also made in cacao beans. Isn’t Mother Nature fascinating?
How About Hedonic Eating?
Scientists have dipped into this, too. I was a little taken aback when looking into the latest research on chocolate when I found a 2015 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that first mentioned ‘deranged endocannabinoid responses’ to hedonic eating – in this case referring to anorexia.
Did this mean that binge chocolate consumption could lead to a deranged endocannabionoid response, too? Maybe, at least if someone is also anorexic.
I also found a case study of a patient who had what the attending physician called ‘chocolate intake abuse’, which was combined with the overuse of an asthma drug. This combination led to bouts of atrial fibrillation.
The bottom line is that, unless you have an eating disorder such as anorexia or you overstimulate your heart with a combination of chocolate and an asthma drug, eating plenty of chocolate should be fine.
Chocolate does, indeed, contain plant natural products that make you feel good. Some folks even describe it as like a feeling of being love. I used to tell my students, during my annual Chocolate Lecture for Valentine’s Day, that plenty of chocolate will make your Sweetie feel even better. Or, in case you couldn’t get a date, eating plenty of chocolate would make you feel in love anyway.
Personal Hedonic Eating
Regarding chocolate, I have some good quality dark chocolate almost every day of the year. Just a small amount is very satisfying. I highly recommend it.
Now, when it comes to Valentine’s Day, though, that is when I go all major-league hedonist. My wife, bless her heart, gets me a ‘surprise’ pound of my favorite See’s chocolate – Dark Bordeaux. There is nothing better to binge on, and my pound will disappear in less than 24 hours.