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E10: 7 Domains of Chocolate

Feb 08, 2021

As women, we might crave chocolate when we're moody or need a pick-me-up, but do we know why we crave chocolate? Does consuming chocolate improve our bodies and minds? Beyond taste, what kind of chocolate is best for the soul? Dr. Chris Jones—Dr. Kirtly Jones' at-home chronobiologist and behavioral expert— joins this episode of 7 Domains of Women's Health to discuss chocolate and how the sweet, or bitter, food affects the human body.

Episode Transcript

This content was originally created for audio. Some elements such as tone, sound effects, and music can be hard to translate to text. As such, the following is a summary of the episode and has been edited for clarity. For the full experience, we encourage you to subscribe and listen— it's more fun that way.

What is Chocolate?

Chocolate in its raw form comes from a bean like the coffee bean, which is disgustingly bitter. Now, the original consumers of chocolate who, as best we can tell, were the Aztecs actually brought chocolate to the new world into our country because there are chocolate vessels at Chaco Canyon, which is in New Mexico, that have little bits of chocolate at the bottom. But they didn't make chocolate the way we know it. They took the cocoa bean, they ground it up, they added hot water to it, and used it as a stimulant.

You know that there's white chocolate and dark chocolate and milk chocolate. The white chocolate has all the fat, but none of the chemicals that are good for you or that make you feel happy, and we'll talk about those. So I don't quite see the purpose for white chocolate because all the good stuff has been taken out.

Chocolate solids, which are the part that is in cocoa, have all the flavonoids and a real cocktail of chemicals that our brains have receptors for. It has these many chemicals and it includes caffeine, which is a stimulant that's in coffee, and theobromine, which is specifically more for chocolate. And those are stimulants, but it has other chemicals as well and we don't know all the ones that are important.

Does Chocolate Affect Women Differently Than Men?

In humans, researches found differences in parts of the brain when women consume chocolate in the hypothalamus, which has to do with memory and food regulation. So the hypothalamus acts differently if they give women a whole bucket of chocolate and they put them into a scanner. They find that women have differences in the hypothalamus from men who eat the same bucket of chocolate.

Well, 40% of women in the U.S. report chocolate cravings while just 15% of men feel like they just have to have chocolate sometimes. It may depend on who you are and how you ask. Half the women who crave chocolate say they do about the time of menstruation. Now, that's difficult to know whether chocolate and PMS are really closely associated, or is it the biologically instilled hankering for something in chocolate, or is it the way we have actually been marketed to have chocolate?

So it turns out we market chocolate to women, and marketing is more likely to have chocolate advertisements at the same time we have tampon advertisements. Can you believe that? So there's a strong influence of culture, and whether it really is something that American women crave chocolate when they are about to have their period or whether it's just the way we've marketed it, that's a tough one.

In Spain, and Spanish women are a lot like American women genetically and physiologically, women don't report craving chocolate premenstrually nearly as much as women do in the U.S. The cravings are different, and men have the same amount of cravings for chocolate in Spain as women do. It could be that culturally, in the United States, craving chocolate is kind of a woman's thing. And maybe men who crave chocolate aren't so manly, and Spanish men aren't so susceptible to that manly thing.

Are Chocolate Cravings Genetic?

My very special at-home expert, Dr. Chris Jones, is an expert on chocolate and he is also a neurologist who studies the genetics of neurologic behaviors. And he's going to talk a little about chocolate.

Dr. K. Jones: So, Chris, does it make you feel better? Does it activate your brain? Do you think chocolate has psychoactive behavioral stuff? Does it make your brain feel better when you eat it?

Dr. C. Jones: It's hard to parse out the sugar rush from the chocolate. So I'm a little conflicted about just why I have to eat these chocolate bars. I think it's a combination of both. Mostly my wife buys me milk chocolate, but I can eat and enjoy chocolate with very little sugar, actually.

Dr. K. Jones: Actually, the truth is his wife does not buy him milk chocolate because his wife likes milk chocolate. So I only have dark chocolate in the house because I hate dark chocolate ... Okay. Now, another question. Is it genetic? So do you think that the desire for chocolate or the craving for chocolate is genetic?

Dr. C. Jones: Clearly, I'm a chocoholic and my mother who was a mother of six children and she was a math major in college, lots of brainpower up there in her mind and she never had to rein it in, but I never really saw her get into caffeine. It was mostly chocolate.

I would say that there's some good evidence that it is genetic. We've wondered whether it's a particular mix of genes. So apparently in looks and personalities and tastes for food, people have looked into a study from the Tufts School of Nutrition and they looked at 800 American adults and found that the difference in genes involved in regulating the feel-good hormone oxytocin were related to how much chocolate people ate.

So there's a very important bonding hormone called oxytocin in the brain, and it's released during nursing. It's a way we bond to our children. It's also released during sex, the way we bond to our partner. And it turns out that the receptor in this gene for oxytocin is different. And you could relate how much people ate of chocolate with their receptors.

Oxytocin is part of the brain's reward system, and researchers theorized that maybe lower levels of hormones and oxytocin might boost cravings to get that reward feeling, that feel-good feeling. So there are some genetic differences in terms of oxytocin receptors.

Other people have looked at oxytocin gene variants, but some other researchers looked more specifically at taste. So people have certain tastes, but variants are more likely to enjoy chocolate than others and might choose dark chocolate versus light chocolate.

Social Reactions to Chocolate

In the social domain, there are rather large differences in social groups in terms of how they eat chocolate. And it could be that a lot of our reaction to chocolate is more social than it is genetic or biochemical.

There are significantly different amounts of chocolate and kind of chocolate in Europe than in the United States. Hershey's, which has helped defined the American chocolate taste certainly up until about the 1980s, had very different amounts of sugar and milk and fat in chocolate than you get in Europe, which tends to be a higher content of chocolate. It's more bitter, it's a little bit smoother, and people have certainly very strong preferences for one or the other, but that could largely be what you're used to rather than any genetic variant.

Intellectual Aspects of Chocolate

"The New England Journal of Medicine" published a little bit on Nobel Prizes and chocolate consumption. They made an amazing graph with the flags of different countries and how many Nobel Prize winners they'd had from that country and how much chocolate consumption there was.

Of course, there at the very top with the most chocolate consumption and the most Nobel Prize winners was Switzerland. And in Switzerland, the average chocolate consumption per person per year was 12 kilograms per year. Now, kilogram is 2.2 pounds. So we're talking about at least 25 pounds of chocolate a year that the average Swiss person consumes.

The other high Nobel-Prize-winning countries included Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the UK, and Germany. All of these countries have lots of Nobel Prize winners and they eat a lot of chocolate.

The U.S. is somewhere down in the middle. The average amount of chocolate consumption at about five kilograms per person per year, and China, which doesn't eat much chocolate per person and hasn't had so far many Nobel Prize winners, but that may be a function of other cultural issues and not just the chocolate itself.

So is this really a chocolate association between cognitive function, Nobel Prize, and chocolate consumption and the way your brain works? It could be that there are other issues. In fact, chocolate consumption is reportedly higher in the countries where there were lots of Nobel Prizes, but it could be that there's more research funding. So all the countries that have had the most chocolate consumption have the highest per capita income and have the highest research funding. So you would guess that Nobel Prize winners may be a function more of a high income, high education, and high research funding and not the chocolate itself.

What is "Real" Chocolate?

I will admit to an addiction for M&M's, not so much now that I'm older, but when I was in training, when I was a medical student and a resident, I was definitely on an M&M gig. I could carry them around in my pocket and eat them like little energy pills. And yes, they are real chocolate. So real chocolate has to have something from the cocoa bean, and any chocolate that you buy, including M&M's or a chocolate bar, has what percent cocoa solids it's got.

Now, the sort of artisan, fancy pants chocolates have 60%, or 70% or 80% cocoa solids, whereas M&M's might have 25% or 30%. I should probably look that up before I put it in this podcast, but they have less cocoa. So it's still chocolate. It's just how much chocolate solids are in it and how much fat and milk and sugar is in it.

So if the number one first thing in the content of your chocolate is sugar, then you know you're not getting that much cocoa solids, but it's still chocolate. You stick in your mouth and you still go, "Yum. Don't tell."

A Link Between Chocolate and Sex

So, let's talk Valentine's Day. I'm going to put this in a financial perspective, and that is the cost of Valentine's Day and the cost for chocolate. Before you spend a lot of your money on expensive, artisanal, shade-grown, fair-priced chocolate from God knows where for your beloved, you might check out their preferences. Maybe they really like the cheap Hershey's milk chocolate or would prefer a one-pound bag of chocolate M&M's. Or maybe they hate chocolate candies with fruits in the middle, which that's a disgusting use of calories, and they only like the chewy than nutty. You know those people. They really have strong preferences.

Now, we give this gift maybe because we're hoping on getting something in return. We've heard about the supposed aphrodisiac effect of chocolates, and we've also heard the Aztec Emperor Montezuma was reputed to have used chocolate in a manner akin to maybe some sexual additives to his day. But the link between chocolate and sex is maybe why chocolate is so intimately involved in Valentine's Day.

So is there any science to say specifically women have more desire when they eat chocolate? Are they less inhibited, or are they just grateful, and so they're giving some sexual favors out of gratitude? Who knows?

So somebody did a study and it was published in "The Journal of Sexual Medicine" where they looked to see women who consumed chocolate on a daily basis scored higher on the female sexual function index. Now, this is an index that's used in sex research and it has a subscale on desire and then a total score on sexual satisfaction. So we use this particular survey a lot when we're studying women's libido. And what they found was that people who ate a lot of chocolate had scored higher on the female sexual function index than women who didn't.

They did note that this was not a randomized trial so much. These were people who routinely ate chocolate versus those who didn't. It wasn't randomized. It wasn't blinded. They noted that women in the daily chocolate group were slightly younger, the average age of 34 versus 40. So that could have affected sexual function scores. And when they actually controlled for, meaning they discounted age and body mass index, they found that people who ate chocolate on a daily basis versus those who didn't had about the same sexual desire and interest.

So if you're giving chocolate to your honey of either gender and you're hoping for something other than a gratitude sexual encounter, you might get that. We just don't know that sex is actually improved by chocolate.

To Some, Chocolate is Happiness

Before our Christmas break, we posted a little short podcast about Christmas, and we mentioned that we were going to do the "7 Domains of Chocolate" and asked our listeners if they were willing to call into our listener line and leave us a little story about their relationship with chocolate. So here's a listener share, and it's from Kathleen.

Kathleen: I love chocolate. I think chocolate is my happy pill. And I always have a piece of chocolate once a day, usually in the afternoon, to just give me a little boost. And every time I do, it's just like a little piece of happiness has exploded in my mouth. And the most important thing is that it's got to be dark chocolate. The darker, the better. So chocolate is definitely an emotional help.

For Kathleen, chocolate is an emotional thing. And I would say I'm kind of a Pooh person. Now, that's a Winnie the Pooh person, not another kind of poo person. And the concept that there's a little something, if I could have a little something when I'm feeling a little low or I'm feeling a little tired, that would give me a little boost. Now, whether it's a real physiologic boost or I associate this chocolate with a little boost, it's something I can do for myself. It's legal, and I can do it when I want. That ability to have a little something to give you an emotional boost is really an important thing.

We're going to have one more listener share and this is Roz's listener share.

Roz: I did not have a relationship with chocolate until I got sober. So a couple of dark chocolate squares augment my joy of living in reality.

Now, when we think about people who have a primary relationship with a substance, not a person, and people who are addicted physically or emotionally to something, their spiritual life becomes unobtainable sometimes. They are so connected with their substance that it's hard for them to connect to their spiritual life.

But when they become sober, when they get into recovery, there are little things that they can actually mark the beauty of their day with. It could be a smell, it could be a sound, it could be a visual thing, or it can be a taste.

And I just love the way Roz has shared the fact that when she became sober, when she came into recovery, there were little things for which she could be profoundly grateful for the reality of her day.

Spiritual Connections to Chocolate

It is a miracle that we live on a planet that offers us chocolate, coffee, opioids, cannabinoids, that's marijuana. And in these plants that have these chemicals, our brains have specific receptors for them. I guess I have to add alcohol here because humans have used grains and fruits to make alcohol since the beginning of recorded time. Our brains have receptors for these chemicals that are grown in plants. We evolved with these plants and our brains like these chemicals.

So it turns out that many cultures use plant-based chemicals in religious ceremonies and to enhance a religious experience. I think that there is an important connection between humans, the way our brains want to feel happy, the natural world, the plants we live among, and it's important to recognize that we all live on this planet and these things evolve together. So chocolate probably has an important part of who we are and who we evolved as a species.

Health Haiku

It's not my best day
The day is cold, the sky dark
I need some chocolate

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