Essential luxuries: Humans and chocolate

When I think of ways that we deal with being thinking meat, I think of things like music or books or art, or love. But psychoactive plant-derived substances also have their place. Chocolate is one of the better sources in my opinion, although plenty of people swear instead by coffee or wine or marijuana or even tea.

On Christmas Eve my older son placed a gift bag full of chocolate under the Christmas tree for me. There were nine large bars in the bag, ranging in cacao content from 70% to an astounding 87%. The labels bore mysterious words like “Sao Thome”, “single origin”, “cocoa nibs”, and “criollo”. In addition to the joys of tasting the chocolate, which I am still savoring, I’m discovering the joys of learning chocolate lingo and lore.

I’ve been fond of chocolate for as long as I can remember, but when I was a child my tastes did not extend much beyond Hershey’s, and my chocolate sophistication grew only slowly. I realized that I preferred dark to light, and eventually found sources for good dark bars; the Chocolove brand has dark bars that range from 55% cacao content to 77% (plus you get a love poem inside the wrapper). Other than those variations, I was aware only of differences in the fruits and nuts added to the bars: almonds, cherries, raspberries, ginger.

After I was introduced to this rich variety of dark chocolate bars from Greg, I spent a little time exploring Sahara Mart, the store where he had bought them. I had never seen anything like it. The variety was so great that I actually felt baffled by the range of choices, and I’ve never felt unsure of myself when shopping for chocolate before. I was intrigued by the labels, and wondered how you would know whether you wanted Belgian chocolate or South American chocolate, and what made a bar made with Venezuelan beans into a European chocolate. There is obviously a great deal to be learned here.

Coffee and chocolate are relatively recent additions to the European arsenal of everyday psychoactive chemicals, and the vocabulary for both appears to have been borrowed from that used for wine. My friend Barb sent me some dark chocolate from France for Christmas, a stack of luscious dark tissue-wrapped squares each from a different locale (Ecuador, Madagascar, Sao Thome, Vanuatu…). Each type has a descriptive blurb with language reminiscent of that used to describe wines, with references to fruit or spice or tobacco, and jargon like “long on the palate” or “powerful nose”. One of the chocolate bars that Greg gave me had instructions written on the wrapper for how to taste good chocolate, which reminded me of the advice for tasting wine (although you cannot admire the glossy shine of the wine or run your thumb over it to release the aroma). Coffee is also described sometimes in the lyrical metaphors used for wine, and I’ve seen coffee ratings that assign numerical scores for qualities like body, acidity, flavor, aftertaste, and something labeled “roast (agtron)”. Evidently there is a rich coffee lore to be learned as well.

Curiously, one of the things that these essential luxuries have in common is the sort of link to a particular environment that is summed up in the word “terroir”. Terroir describes the way that geography and climate and weather and soil affect the taste of the coffee or tea or chocolate or wine. The sunlight, soil chemistry, moisture, humidity, and temperature of each area will nurture a particular taste, and even that will vary from year to year. For wine and chocolate, the term “varietal” or “select origin” is related to where the grapes or beans come from, although I’ve had a hard time pinning down exactly what it means to the chocolate world; the size of the region involved can be as small as a particular plantation or as large as a country.

At Sahara Mart, you can find chocolate bars from the same company, with the same cacao content, that differ only in the country of origin. (I wonder if I will ever be able to identify the origin of a chocolate bar by taste.) I used to send good coffee to one of my brothers, who for awhile carried his passion for coffee to such lengths that he was roasting his own beans. I don’t drink coffee, so the names didn’t tell me much about the qualities of the coffee, but I was enchanted by them anyway, redolent as they were of tropical locales. Certainly the tropical origins and the history of chocolate add to its romance. The cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, grows only within 20 degrees of the equator at lower elevations. The name “theobroma” comes from the Greek words that mean “food of the gods”. This is one of the facts I relish about chocolate. Others may sing the praises of their everyday drug of choice, but chocolate is the only one, as far as I know, that claims with its very name that it’s the chosen nourishment of deities.

But of course it’s not just the romance of place that makes these essential luxuries so compelling. They all have some kind of physiological and psychological effects, due to their chemical makeup. Chocolate doesn’t give you a buzz or make you go zoom, but it does seem to make people happy. On stressful days or during long meetings at work, one of my bosses passes around some chocolate to relieve the stress. It’s amazing, when you stop to think about it, how substances that contribute so much to our lives require such extensive processing to get them to their optimum state. Actually coffee and cacao need to be processed in order to even be fit for human consumption, because the untreated seeds are so bitter.

I can understand how someone might have discovered by happy accident that grapes ferment and realized that unlike many other fermented products, they are enhanced rather than spoiled by the process. Winemaking could take off from there easily enough. But it’s surprising that anyone thought to roast and grind cocoa beans up, much less put chocolate through the complex process it requires to go from pod to Godiva. The bitter seeds are surrounded by a sweet sticky substance; the bean pods don’t break open by themselves, and so the tree relies on animals to break open the pods for the sweet reward inside. The bitter seeds offer no temptation to nibblers, so they are discarded wherever the animal drops them when it’s done with the sweet stuff, and the tree gets its seed dispersed and thus, in the manner of all living things, it works to ensure that its kind continue upon the Earth.

That’s straightforward enough. But then someone thought to process the seeds so that they are edible. This involves fermenting, drying, roasting, and winnowing (winnowing removes the husks of the shell). (Cocoa nibs, by the way, are the shelled, degermed beans. They add a pleasant crunch to a bar of dark chocolate.) After the beans have been subjected to all of this, they are then ground to make a product called “mass” which is the basis for a number of chocolate goodies. Dried, it becomes cocoa powder; with the addition of sugar and possibly milk, and further processing, it becomes chocolate. Once chocolate becomes tempting to eat, the alkaloids that make the beans bitter become important for their amazing effects on some animals.

There’s nothing particularly mysterious about plants containing things that are useful to humans. Plants and humans have co-evolved; we have adapted to the foods available where our ancestors came from. For a good introduction to the co-evolution of humans and their food, read Gary Paul Nabhan’s Why some like it hot. He describes things like the relationship between fava beans and malaria or lactose intolerance and climate, and also explains why a move away from a traditional diet can be so devastating to the health. Plants naturally produce chemicals that slot into human biochemistry one way or another; that’s how natural herbal remedies work (to the degree that they work at all, of course). Over time, humans apply selection pressure to cultivate the types of plants that help them the most, breeding for certain characteristics.

Some of the reputed health benefits of chocolate, especially dark chocolate with less sugar, are due to the presence of flavonols, antioxidants, and trace elements similar to those that make other fruits and vegetables so good for us. Chocolate contains phenols that might promote cardiovascular health, for example, and the trace mineral magnesium. (There is some speculation that the magnesium might be the reason that premenstrual women often crave chocolate.)

But more mysterious and magical than the contributions to cardiovascular health, as welcome as those may be, are the chemicals that mesh with our own brain chemistry in pleasant ways. Coffee, tea, chocolate, and marijuana are different from alcohol in that they have their effects on us through alkaloids that interact with an existing chemical network in our brains; their chemistry unlocks doors in our brain for which we also have endogenous chemical keys. Alcohol tinkers with the brain surely enough, but it doesn’t contain chemicals that match so amazingly to our existing receptors.

Alkaloids are organic molecules that are usually derivatives of amino acids. Often bitter-tasting and frequently toxic, alkaloids have evolved in plants to discourage animals from eating them, or to encourage only certain animals to eat them. Nicotine and caffeine, although tolerated in certain doses by humans, can fairly be described as toxins. Theobromine, the active ingredient in chocolate, is also toxic for some animals (most famously dogs, when they consume it at high doses). But through the magic of roasting or drying or other types of processing, beans that are loaded with these toxins become some of the greatest delicacies for us humans.

Caffeine and theobromine belong to a class of alkaloids called methylxanthines. Both occur in coffee, tea, and chocolate. In chocolate, there is far more theobromine than caffeine. Like its cousin caffeine, theobromine is a central nervous system stimulant (although much milder in its effects than caffeine); theobromine is also a diuretic and a vasodilator, meaning that it dilates blood vessels (by relaxing their walls). As a hypertensive, I was very interested to learn this, although chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, which is related to the amphetamines and raises blood glucose and blood pressure. According to a recent study, dark chocolate does have the overall effect of lowering blood pressure.

The caveat on any study about the health benefits of chocolate is that the sugar and fat content are generally high. Cocoa butter has a high stearate content, and stearates melt at body temperature, which is part of what gives chocolate its luscious texture. The sugar also probably provides part of the chocolate thrill, although it certainly seems to me that there is much more going on than that, because other sweet treats don’t come anywhere close to being as satisfying as chocolate. At any rate, chocolate is never going to play a major role in a healthful diet. Moderation is in order, and keep in mind that the darker the chocolate, the more health-enhancing substances it contains.

No one knows exactly what the body’s cannabinoid network does.
Several of the chemicals in chocolate play a role in the brain’s chemistry. For example, chocolate contains some serotonin, which is known to be important in regulating mood. Something in high-fat chocolate foods might prompt the brain to produce endorphins, the brain’s own endogenous opiates. Chocolate also contains two compounds that are chemically related to a substance the brain produces, anandamide. The name comes from the Sanskrit word for bliss, and anandamide is the body’s own home-grown analog for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Humans have receptors for it not only in the brain but throughout the body. These chemical relatives of anandamide may affect the anandamide receptors directly, or possibly affect the way we react to the body’s own anandamide, enhancing or prolonging its effects by slowing the rate at which this normally short-lived chemical is absorbed.

The reason we have receptors that work with plant-derived stimulants like caffeine and theobromine is not that our receptor systems co-evolved with the plants that produced these substances; we’ve been cultivating these plants for too short a time. They work on us in the way they do because the body has its own stimulant system, the famous fight-or-flight response powered by the adrenals; these stimulants mimic the action of our own biochemistry. It’s a similar story for plant-derived opiates; we have opiate receptors not because we’ve adapted to use these substances from plants, but because our bodies produce their own opiates (endorphins, whose name comes from the words “endogenous morphine”). The plant substances slot into an already existing system in the body, this one also designed to help us deal with stressful situations.

No one knows exactly what the body’s cannabinoid network does. (It’s not even clear what plant-based THC does for the plant; possibilities include protection from potentially damaging ultraviolet radiation, defense against pests—addling them rather than killing them—or perhaps even antibiotic properties.) Endogenous cannabinoids may play a role in seizure frequency in epileptics; they may foster neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) and help protect the brain from the effects of strokes.

The endogenous cannabinoid system is also important in learning and memory as well as pain relief. Michael Pollan has written about the possible functions of this network in The Botany of Desire. Pollan cites the ideas of Raphael Mechoulam, the first to identify and synthesize THC, who speculates that in addition to its other functions, it may help regulate the processing of emotion. Allyn Howlett, who discovered THC receptors in mouse neurons, suggests that its usefulness in pain relief and the blurring of memory might make it, as Pollan puts it, “the brain’s own drug for coping with the human condition”.

One of the more noteworthy effects of THC and our endogenous cannabinoids is short-term memory loss. Pollan suggests that perhaps in addition to the brain systems devoted to the task of remembering, we also need a system for forgetting. Our minds and bodies are overwhelmed by incoming data, and if we remembered every single bit of it, we’d never be able to find the most important bits. We generalize, we condense multiple similar experiences in our memories, and we forget. This removes some of the enchantment from the world, because we ignore things that we’re familiar with, but it also makes it a manageable place. By interfering with our memory, perhaps marijuana re-enchants the world by allowing us to forget that we’ve gotten jaded by constant contact with the things of everyday life. Forgetting is a key to mindfulness and living in the timeless now. Might some of the chemicals in chocolate do the same thing, in a more subtle way, by allowing anandamide to circulate longer?

Chocolate contains around 300 known chemicals. Perhaps the anandamide relatives, combined with the pleasant stimulation of the theobromine, the sweetness and smoothness of the sugar and fat, and other neurochemicals like serotonin, provide us with just a taste of bliss, not enough to keep us from functioning more or less normally, but enough to make us feel good. The combination of ingredients makes chocolate a potent treat. If the brain reacts to chocolate in part through a brain system for forgetting that helps to us to rediscover the magic of the everyday, that makes it even more deserving of the name “food of the gods.”

The other day I went with a friend to Sahara Mart; he had never seen their chocolate section. We browsed contentedly up and down the display, studying the labels. I picked out some chocolate for another friend (I’ve still got plenty of Christmas chocolate at home to enjoy); he selected a couple of bars to take home with him. We both made mental notes about the kinds we’d like to try some day. As we prepared to leave, we took one last look at our haul and scanned the shelves with satisfaction, contemplating the chocolate awaiting us.

“Doesn’t it make you feel better about life?” I asked.

“Yes, it does,” he said.

(Originally posted March 27, 2006)

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