Chocolate. The word lends itself well to a drooly delivery a laHomer Simpson: “Mmm. Chocolate.” It oozes indulgence in an almost primal sense, thanks in part to so many marketing campaigns over the years that have centered on the decadent aspect of chocolate (cue Dove’s “choose pleasure” slogan and its ads featuring women seemingly obliterating the stress of being a woman by biting into a melty brown square).
The marketing of chocolate may be a bit over the top (and unjustly skewed towards women, as though the consumption of sweets equals a distinctly femme form of self-care), but brands like Dove aren’t exactly wrong: Chocolate is pleasurable — so much so that it’s easy to overdo it, especially this time of year, when retailers are slapping insane discounts on leftover Valentine’s Day fare.
I’m taking advantage of the chocolate clearances and am presently nibbling on some sort of milk chocolate owl thingie. It’s roughly the size of a floodlight, and my rational brain is saying “Omg, Nicole, you’re gonna feel so gross later. Stop.” But some other part of my brain is saying “Heck, yes girl, eat that big owl! This is heaven!”
What is going on here? Why is chocolate so addictive and when and how do the health benefits of chocolate come into play?
Milk and white chocolate: loaded with sugar and fat that trigger a dopamine fix
Though chocolate is typically divided into three categories: dark, milk and white, the latter two really should just be called “highly-processed interpretations of chocolate,” because that’s basically what they are. And it’s the processed sugars, salts and fats that make these varieties so tasty — which is also what makes them so addictive.
“The more processed food is, the more addictive it is,” says Nicole Avena, assistant professor at Mount Sinai Medical School and a visiting professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology. “We don’t yet know exactly why this is, but I think the issue is that processed foods are man-made concoctions that are designed to taste good, and milk chocolate has a much higher dose of sugar than you’d ever see in nature. We have done many studies in this area, and found that among the foods that are most addictive, chocolate is at the top, and the chocolate people tend to really crave is milk chocolate, which generally has a lot of added sugars. Darker versions are often less preferred because they do not contain the sugar and the milk.”
Milk chocolate will simulate sweet taste receptors ... sweet taste receptors alone stimulate a dopamine release, sending projections that say, ‘This is a pleasurable experience; Let's do it again.’
This sugar and milk combo affects the brain like a drug, in that it triggers changes in the dopamine system on a molecular level, Avena explains. “A cascade of neurochemical changes can occur,” she says. “Milk chocolate will simulate sweet taste receptors. You won't see that with dark chocolate as it's bitter and somewhat aversive. Sweet taste receptors alone stimulate a dopamine release, sending projections that say, ‘This is a pleasurable experience; Let's do it again.’”
Self-control can easily go out the window when facing a milk chocolate candy bar, because your brain is so pumped full of feel-good chemicals. Additionally, your brain is forming affirming associations with each and every bite, such that even if you do manage to have just a nibble, your brain will basically bookmark the experience as a wildly good one that you should have again, pronto.
“The next time you even look at say, a Hershey’s wrapper, your brain will know that’s the signal for that powerful pleasurable feeling,” says Avena. “This is why you don’t see food brands change their labeling. Our brains are wired to be wary of new foods.”
Fueling the vicious cycle is the possibility that the neurons that create dopamine can down-regulate, meaning “they just stop making as much dopamine,” Avena says. Again, chocolate in this respect acts just like a drug. The more you take over time, the more you need to get that high.
The same neurochemical avalanche, if you will, can be triggered by white chocolate, which Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., registered dietitian nutritionist and senior editor of health and wellness strategy at Remedy Review, says is “technically not chocolate, as it's devoid of cocoa solids and cocoa powder altogether.”
Want to reap the health benefits of chocolate? The darker, the better
There’s been a lot of buzz about the health perks of chocolate in recent years, but it’s crucial to note that the only kind of chocolate that touts notable benefits (beyond a trace of calcium in milk chocolate) is dark chocolate — and the darker the better. In fact, in its natural ‘plant-based’ form, chocolate touts great nutrients.
“The cacao used to make chocolate is chock full of a variety of plant bioactive compounds known as polyphenols, particularly flavonoids (especially flavanols), catechins, epicatechins and procyanidins,” says Ferira. “Cocoa powder delivers about 50 mg of polyphenols per gram. Dark chocolate contains significantly more of these beneficial polyphenols than milk and white chocolate varieties.”
5 ways that chocolate is good for your health
- It has antioxidants. “Quercetin, a type of antioxidant, is present in chocolate in quite high concentrations,” says Emily Van Eck, MS, a registered dietitian nutritionist and intuitive eating counselor. “Antioxidants have many beneficial and disease preventing functions in the body due to their ability to scavenge free radicals.”
- It has anti-inflammatory properties. “Chocolate has anti-inflammatory properties, which may benefit cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases,” says Van Eck.
- It’s rich in heart- and lung-healthy elements. Dark chocolate is rich in theobromine, “a phenolic compound [that] is a vasodilator, so it can relax arteries and lower blood pressure, potentially improving cardiovascular disease risk,” says Van Eck. “Chocolate also contains theophylline, which increases cardiac output, or how much blood the heart is pumping out. It also increases bronchial dilation, so it increases the ability of the lungs to absorb oxygen.” Erika Fox, a registered dietitian nutritionist at 310 Nutrition, adds that research suggests that “flavanols have the power to improve blood flow and oxygen levels, ultimately improving blood pressure and having a positive effect on heart health.”
- It could boost your cognition. “Flavonols have been shown to boost blood flow in the brain and may also be able to boost memory and improve cognitive performance,” says Dr. Brad Herskowitz, neurologist for the Miami Neuroscience Institute.
- And boost your mood. “As many studies have shown, dark chocolate can improve mood,” says Van Eck. “It seems these effects are due both to the palatability, taste and texture of chocolate, as well as the psychoactive components. Chocolate also contains caffeine, which increases alertness.”
To tap into the benefits of chocolate and get the highest flavanol content, the type of chocolate is important. “To get the most benefit, look for dark chocolate with higher percentages of cacao,” says Fox. “[It] contains higher amounts of nutrients, especially compared to milk chocolates.”
Yes, dark chocolate has benefits, but it’s not exactly a miracle food
The consensus among the experts I consulted is that while dark chocolate has attractive qualities from a nutritional perspective, the jury is out on just how impactful these benefits really are in comparison to say, leafy greens. So, rather than deeming dark chocolate a miracle food to be consumed in abundance, it’s smarter to approach it as a potentially healthful treat that’s best enjoyed in moderation — after all, it’s still high in fat, calories and caffeine and contains sugar.
“While there is no clinical consensus on recommended consumption levels of dark chocolate, and every person's nutritional needs and health situation is unique, a dietitian-approved serving of dark chocolate is typically discussed as 1-2 ounces (1-2 squares) per day,” says Ferira.
Think dark chocolate is too bitter? You can train your brain to enjoy it
As I work on cleaning up my diet (milk chocolate owl splurge aside), I’m trying to swap out my normal processed sweets for high-percentage dark chocolate, but it hasn’t been easy. The bitterness turns me off. This is to be expected after a life of devouring milk chocolate.
Fortunately, there are some tricks we can implement to train our brain to appreciate dark chocolate. Here’s 5 expert-recommended tips:
- Start with a low percentage cacao and work your way up. “Start with a lower percentage dark chocolate, like 50 percent [cacao],” says Ferira. “Don't go for 90 out the gate. Start low, go slow, and go up from there. I think this is the most practical approach.”
- Eat more fruit. If you’re used to getting your sugar fix from ultra-processed sweets such as milk and white chocolate, your taste buds' sensitivity to less abrasive, more natural sweet flavors has likely been drastically dulled. Ferira recommends opting for fruit when you have a craving for something sugary in a move to “train your taste buds over time to recognize natural sources of sweetness versus things chock full of added sugars,” she says.
- Get creative with pairings. What usually turns people off to dark chocolate is the bitterness. In addition to starting at a lower cacao percentage and working your way up, get creative with pairings. Pairing dark chocolate with something naturally sweet “like blueberries or raspberries or whatever fruits you like,” is another strategy Ferira recommends. In supermarkets, you’ll find tons of products that claim to already do this (chocolate-covered acai, for instance); this might be a good gateway option to dark chocolate, but don’t be fooled into thinking that these fruit plus dark chocolate combos are as good for you as pairing plain dark chocolate with real fruit. Often these packaged products touting cacao and fruit “can be amazingly dense in calories and/or sugars,” adds Ferira.
- Increase exposure to dark chocolate while phasing out milk and white. “If you eat milk chocolate and then have dark chocolate, the dark will probably taste awful in comparison,” says Avena. “But over time, the less time you spend eating milk chocolate and the more you spend eating dark chocolate, the dark will naturally start to taste better because you're not making that comparison.”
- Pay attention to how your body feels after eating dark chocolate versus milk chocolate. “We will always like unhealthy things because they overpower our neurochemical responses,” says Avena. “But if you can convince yourself you have benefits with healthier foods, over time they won’t be as aversive. When people say that they love Brussels sprouts, they’re usually [indicating] that they’ve become accustomed to the health benefits of Brussels sprouts and how they make them feel. It’s less of a direct relationship.”
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