Tech UPTechnologyWhy does it make us feel good to eat...

Why does it make us feel good to eat chocolate?

Its name comes from the Aztec word xocalat , which means ‘bitter water’ and, as we all know, it is extracted from the seeds of the Theobroma cacoa tree, the cocoa tree, a name that comes from the Greek for “food of the gods”. Let us remember that there are three main varieties : the most common is Forastero, which accounts for almost 90% of the world’s cocoa production. The rarest and, therefore, most appreciated (always the rarest is the tastiest), is the Criollo variety and the one that remains, Trinitario, is a cross of the previous two. The Aztecs saw the cacao tree as a source of strength and health and appointed the god Quetzalcoatl as its guardian. It was usually served as a sparkling liquid mixed with cinnamon and cornmeal. It was in Europe when vanilla and sugar were added: it had to be made sweeter so that it would be pleasing to our palate.

On average, chocolate contains 8% protein, 60% carbohydrates and 30% fat, a figure that is around the limit of what is recommended for health. A 100-gram tablet provides 520 calories and contains essential elements such as potassium, calcium, iron, copper and zinc, as well as vitamins A, B and E. But what is striking is that it contains more than 300 chemical substances and most of them we do not know how they act on the body

But we do know some things. In addition to the pleasure of dipping churros in it, it also provides a “feel good” sensation in our brain due to phenylethylamine, which is related to amphetamines. As such, it’s a stimulant—not as intense as the popular speeds—that acts on certain neurotransmitters in the parts of the brain that control our ability to pay attention and stay alert. There is only about 700mg of phenylethylamine in a 100g tablet , something like 0.7%, although most chocolates have considerably less: on the order of 50-100mg. Phenylethylamine, which looks oily and smells fishy when pure, raises blood glucose and blood pressure, and can enhance the release of dopamine, which has a euphoric effect on the brain.

However, not all researchers believe that this feel-good effect is the responsibility – in whole or in part – of phenylethylamine. Scientists at the Neuroscience Institute of San Diego, in California, think that chocolate contains pharmacologically active substances whose effect is the same as marijuana and that they could be responsible for a certain type of drug-induced psychosis, which has historically been associated with to the consumption of chocolate.

Brain cells have a receptor for THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) from marijuana. In other words, THC, like other psychotropic substances, can be imagined as a key looking for a lock in nerve cells. If it finds it, it attaches to the cell membrane and causes reactions inside it that induce pleasant and stimulating sensations. THC does not appear in chocolate but another substance does, anandamide, which acts on the same structures as THC. Interestingly, anandamide – whose name comes from the Sanskrit word ananda, inner happiness – is produced naturally in the brain but is quickly destroyed. For chocolate to have an impact on the normal levels of this molecule in our body, we would have to eat several kilos. What happens, and what the scientists from the Institute of Neurosciences found, is that chocolate has other substances that slow down this destruction, allowing it to cause that delicate effect of feeling good while we eat our portion of cocoa.

Chocolate also contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid that the brain also uses to generate serotonin, which in high levels produces euphoria and even ecstasy. And as if that were not enough, in the always attractive tablets we find theobromine, which acts in the same way as caffeine or theine but on a much smaller scale. It is a mild diuretic, stimulant and muscle relaxant. Now, while for us it is not a problem, it is for dogs, horses and other domestic animals, since they metabolize theobromine much more slowly, which affects the kidneys, heart and nervous system.

The first to discover the exciting effects of chocolate were the Mayans, and it was a drink reserved for the elite of society . When the Spanish arrived in America at the end of the 15th century, the Aztecs were the dominant civilization and part of their economy was based on the cocoa seed: the conquered peoples paid their tributes with this currency.

The Aztec nobles saw it as a powerful aphrodisiac , and, rascally, forbade their women to drink it. When cocoa arrived in Europe, chocolate’s reputation as a sexual appetite stimulant came with it. How could it be otherwise, this reputation grew over time. It was drunk with such relish by both sexes that in 1624 a writer, Joan Roach, devoted an entire book to condemning it, referring to it in a very puritanical tone as “a violent inflamed passion.” In the 18th century, the great lover Casanova proclaimed to the four winds that chocolate was his favorite drink. But Casanova was not a chemist, and as much as he was a great lover, his sexual prowess had nothing to do with this black pleasure: chocolate is not an aphrodisiac.

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