The Chemistry of Chocolate

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Chocolate has been around for over 3000 years. Native to South America it was once used as currency by the natives and in the West it used to be viewed as a luxury commodity and only enjoyed by the wealthy.

In Europe today it is estimated that each person in Britain eats approximately sixteen pounds of chocolates each year and in Switzerland the estimate is even higher at twenty one pounds. National celebrations such as St. Valentine's Day are centred on the giving and receiving of chocolates as a token of love and affection, such is its current importance within western culture.

Its chemical name is Theobroma Cacao, sometimes called 'the food of the Gods' and often also referred to as being 'psychoactive'. Discovered by Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez in 1519 and taken to Europe together with recipes of how it could be best enjoyed. The cacao is grown on trees and the beans are housed within large pendulous pods, green when immature, changing to an orangey red when fully ripened. On opening the pods the beans are present in a white pulp which releases a sweet pungent smell.

Chocolate is loved and enjoyed by most people and there are those who have an absolute passion for it bordering on obsession. The substance which creates this passion and sometimes craving is known as Theobromine. It belongs to a class of alkaloid molecules known as Methylxanthines that also occur naturally in many different plant species.

As pleasurable and simple as it might seem, chocolate contains at lease 300 different types of chemical compounds which include serotonin and anandamide. Both are neuro-transmitters, responsible for helping to calm and relax the body and is said to have a similar action on the body to Marijuana. It also contains Phenylethylatime, antioxidants with a very small amount of caffeine.

Theobromine also has an effect upon the human body similar to caffeine and has a mild diuretic effect which has been used in the treatment of high blood pressure, because of its ability to dilate blood vessels. Different types of chocolate contain different quantities of Theobromine and the darker the chocolate the greater quantity of Theobromine it contains.

It is also rich in carbohydrates and an excellent source of saturated fats which has the effect of lowering cholesterol levels. Other identified chemicals are Histamine, Magnesium and Potassium. It contains fatty- acids called cannabinoids and when eaten, hit the receptors of the brain which stimulate the areas of the brain responsible for motor function and memory.

Extensive research on the ability of chocolates to affect mood had been undertaken. However, although no definite scientific proof has been established to date, it is believed that the chemical compounds in chocolate have a direct relationship with mood elevation when eaten on a regular basis and those who eat it regularly are believed to be less likely to suffer from low moods or depression.

Quite apart from its primary use as an ingestible substance, chocolate also has numerous applications within the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries where it has long been a key ingredient in skin moisturisers and anti-dryness preparations.

More about this author: Phyllis Logie

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