There can be little denying that Britons love chocolate. Last year, in fact, we chomped through 661 million kilograms of the stuff as a nation. That made us the biggest consumers of chocolate in Europe. So why do we love chocolate so much?
Recent studies have shown that craving for chocolate is a very real issue that has affected people since at least the eighteenth century.
Cacao beans, the essential component of chocolate, were being roasted, ground and then drunk with water by the Mayans over 2000 years ago.
The Aztecs, meanwhile, are thought to have been the first to try chocolate in something similar to its present form. They created chocolate drinks with flavourings, and even used chocolate to cure illnesses.
In the eighteenth century, in Mexico, nuns were known to be chocoholics. As privileged members of society, they were allowed to consume as much chocolate as they desired by the convent.
So when new rules were brought into the country’s convents which meant nuns had to prepare their own food, their intake was cut drastically.
Contemporary doctors lambasted chocolate as harmful for causing the hysteria that followed. Yet it is now thought that this hysteria was most likely caused by withdrawal symptoms from the cacao.
Still today, the same cravings persist. Not only are people buying chocolates in the traditional way, but the trend of chocolate tasting is also taking off. With over 500 chemicals in many consumer chocolates, however, it is not easy to pinpoint exactly what the processes are that make it so attractive.
Dr. Barry Smith of Birkbeck University of London suggests that it is chocolate’s multi-sensory appeal that makes it so alluring. “Cheese might smell stinky but it can taste great. Brewed coffee always smells fantastic but it’s not the same taste when you drink it – and that’s disappointing.”
Chocolate, on the other hand, has an aroma and taste that match up perfectly. Meanwhile, Smith says, the texture of chocolate also contributes to its appeal. The smoothness and creaminess of chocolate when in the mouth, and the sweetness of the taste added by vanilla flavouring, create exceptional pleasure.
In addition to this, researchers from California suggest that one of chocolate’s chemicals, the ‘feel-good’ anandamide, which is also found naturally in the brain, is partly responsible for our love affair with chocolate. This chemical is normally broken down quickly after being produced. But scientists at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego said that the anandamide found in chocolate makes the high last longer in our brains.
Dr Adrian Owen, from the University of Cambridge, says that the sensory experience caused by chocolate triggers the ‘feel-good’ part of our brain to the extent that we’re happier munching on a good bar of chocolate than listening to our favourite music, winning the lottery or even being in love.
They found the information after conducting research on the brains of volunteers. They examined the activity of the orbifrontal cortex – on the surface of the brain – that analyses the “rewarding value of incoming information to the brain.” Their scans showed how the orbifrontal cortex reacted extremely positively to chocolate.
And the ream of research conducted into chocolate is not just limited to what makes it so appealing. Some doctors have suggested that there are health benefits to consuming it – as long as it is done in moderation as part of a balanced diet. The polyphenols in cacao beans, for example, are thought to help protect our hearts.
With so many reasons and explanations for why we love chocolate so much, it’s only natural that one might wish to try some chocolate tasting.