Research Outreach Blog
July 1, 2022

For the love of chocolate

Chocolate. The feeling of delight triggered by a mouthful is familiar to many of us. Its visual aspect, its scent, its taste, the sound it makes when we bite into it, the sensation once in the mouth – chocolate provides an experience that activates all of our senses. Of course, not everyone loves chocolate, but most of us do. Some of us will even happen to crave it from time to time, may it be out of boredom, as a coping mechanism, or for no reason other than the joy it brings. But what about chocolate makes it so irresistible?

Scientists have tried to answer this question. Some facts about chocolate are now widely accepted, while some theories are still debated. Studies have proven that, when we eat chocolate, our brain releases chemicals such as endorphins or serotonin, which are known to be associated with happiness and overall wellness. How chocolate triggers this reaction in the brain is a bit more unclear. Compounds found in chocolate may be responsible, but they are present in such small quantities that their role is still questioned.

Chemicals the brain releases
Four chemicals are known to be released by the brain when eating chocolate: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. These chemicals are used by neurons to communicate with one another.

Endorphins are natural pain relievers; their name actually comes from a contraction of the words ‘endogenous’ (which means ‘from within’) and ‘morphine’. These chemicals interact with receptors in our brain. Their function is double: besides reducing pain, they also boost pleasure. They are released by the brain in response to pain or stress, but also during enjoyable activities such as eating chocolate.

Four chemicals are known to be released by the brain when eating chocolate: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.

Serotonin is commonly associated with happiness. People with depression or anxiety often have low levels of serotonin. This chemical is able to improve our mood, our satisfaction, our optimism, and our overall wellbeing.

Dopamine is involved in what is called the reward system: when the brain releases dopamine, the chemical activates parts of the brain known as pleasure centres, which make us feel good. Dopamine makes our pupils dilate, a sign that is often associated with love and attraction.

Oxytocin is another chemical which could explain why eating chocolate is so enjoyable. Oxytocin is involved in social bonding. The brain releases this chemical in response to love, for example every time we hug someone and also, it seems, whenever we eat chocolate.

The power of chocolate
Different compounds of chocolate are suspected to be involved in the chemical reactions happening inside the brain. Tryptophan is used to make serotonin. Phenylethylamine is a natural antidepressant that produces feelings similar to falling in love. Theobromine has a relaxing effect and helps relieve stress. However, these compounds are present in chocolate in such small quantities that they may be entirely digested before they can even reach the brain.

‘Eat, you’ll feel better’, said Lupin in one of the Harry Potter movies while handing a chocolate bar to Harry. The fact that chocolate is nice to eat and makes us feel better is widely accepted, and this mindset may be what creates the feeling of happiness: it could be that eating chocolate makes us happy just because we are convinced of its benefits.

While scientists attempt to unlock the mysteries of chocolate, all that is left to do is eat and enjoy!

Daphnée Poupon is a science writer based in France.

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