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The news you wanted to hear

By Glenn Cardwell

This article first appeared in the Skeptic 18(4), 54-55, Summer 1990. The author is a dietician.

Although Australia sneaks into the world's top ten chocolate consuming countries, it is the Swiss who truly love their chocolate. Every year they give themselves nearly 10 kg of oral pleasure per person, whereas Australia manages little more than 5 kg per person -- less choccy points than Norway, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Austria, UK, and Denmark. Why do we score so low? Could it be that we see chocolate as sensual but sinful, a shocking combination of restorative pleasure and painful guilt? A combination that diminishes our consumption? To would-be sinners the research described below brings Good News. The cited references are listed at the end.

The world's no 1 food desire
Is the supposedly sinful pleasure of chocolate addictive? It is commonly thought that chocolate contains addictive substances which, in part, explains the craving for chocolate. Indeed, US and Canadian studies suggest that chocolate may be the single most craved food. Thus Weingarten & Elston (1991) surveyed 868 college students in Canada and found that chocolate, followed by pizza, was the most craved food. Of those who listed chocolate as a craving, three quarters said there was nothing else that would satisfy that craving! Similarly a study of US undergraduates by Rozin et al (1991) found chocolate to be the most craved food. In both studies the craving was most prevalent in women. And it has to be milk chocolate. Only one in ten chocolate cravers preferred dark chocolate (Hetherington & Macdiarmid 1993).

But what causes the craving? Could it really be something drug-like or merely a deficient nutrient? Chocolate craving has been attributed to (1) phenylethylamine desire (so we all want some), (2) magnesium deficiency (but peanuts contain more magnesium than does chocolate and no-one hears of a craving for peanuts), (3) caffeine addiction (but chocolate has less caffeine, 20 mg/100g, than instant coffee, 70 mg/cup), and (4) cannabis-related substances in chocolate. But none of these have much support from research. Chocolate cravings have also been observed after taking the drug Ecstasy, which led to typically 1000-2000 calorie binges (Schifano & Magni 1994). That's one 250g block of Cadbury's in one go. But not everyone needs drugs to gobble it up, just a deep wallet.

Eat chocolate, be happy
I was able to corner Professor David Benton, Department of Psychology, University of Wales, during the 1998 Kellogg Nutrition Symposium in Sydney, and ask him about his special area of interest, namely food and mood. He describes chocolate as "a very powerful food" which fits perfectly into healthy eating. I can only agree. He says "We like chocolate because we are programmed genetically to like sweet/fat combinations that taste extremely good. When we eat something we like, we produce endorphins, which makes us feel good. This is not exclusive to chocolate -- anything that tastes good causes brain endorphin release".

Drug-free chocolate
Professor Benton believes that chocolate is craved mainly for its mood-improving properties, and dismisses its potential to exert drug-like effects. "If you have traditionally used chocolate, even unknowingly, to improve your mood, the next time you feel a bit low you are going to feel a craving for chocolate. But I don't want to imply that chocolate is addictive". He said that none of the above four explanations were plausible. For example "Phenylethylamine is produced by the body when one experiences feelings of love, so it gets media headlines that chocolate is a substitute for love. But phenylethylamine is present in chocolate only in very small amounts. It is also broken down very rapidly by the liver. So getting phenylethylamine via chocolate isn't going to work". Unsurprisingly, Professor Benton's comments at the symposium received a lot of publicity. Interestingly, less than a quarter of his presentation was on chocolate, yet it was the area that most fascinated the media.

Mmmm & Mmmms
A more likely explanation for chocolate desire is that its sensory properties, such as the aroma, taste and mouth feel, combine to provide a wonderful sensory fusion that creates an ongoing desire. In plain English it feels so good that we want more and more. Michener & Rozin (1994) studied 34 self-reported chocolate-craving adults (29 female, 5 male) giving them either milk chocolate, or white chocolate, or cocoa powder capsules, or white chocolate and cocoa powder capsules, or (as a placebo) white flour capsules, or (despicable experimenter) nothing. Only the milk chocolate and the cocoa powder contained any possible pharmacological substances (there are none in cocoa butter, which is only fat), so what did the subjects prefer?

It was no surprise that milk chocolate had the greatest effect in reducing the craving for chocolate. White chocolate and the white chocolate with cocoa powder had only two thirds the effect. Cocoa powder alone had little effect, and received a similar rating to the white-flour placebo and eating nothing. This suggests that the subjects did not consume chocolate for any addictive drug-like properties. Instead, it suggests that chocolate cravings are truly satisfied by its sensory properties, created by chocolate's unique combination of over 400 compounds (Hoskin 1994). For chocoholics only chocolate will do.

Too much of a good thing?
Macdiarmid and Hetherington (1995) looked at self-reported female adult chocolate addicts (or overeaters) and compared them to a control group of chocolate likers who didn't feel they were addicts or overeaters. The addicts ate four times as much as the controls and were more likely to eat in secret (20% vs 1%). They were also significantly more depressed, more dissatisfied with their body shape, and more prone to disordered eating. Unsurprisingly, both groups said the eating of chocolate was a pleasant experience that reduced both hunger and the craving for chocolate. But the enjoyment was short-lived since it led to increasing guilt feelings, especially for the addicts.

Hetherington and Macdiarmid (1995), possibly using the same subjects, made further comparisons between addicts and controls. When both were given a fixed amount of chocolate (60g), the addicts recorded a significantly smaller decline in hunger, pleasantness, and pleasure than did the controls. Addicts also ate more chocolate under help-yourself conditions than did the controls. Interestingly, when the subjects were given their favourite chocolate, they ate less (by 16% for addicts and 28% for controls) than when given the researchers (unspecified) choice of chocolate. The message seems to be "If you really like chocolate and don't wish to over comsume, always choose your favourite".

Both the Hetherington and Macdiarmid studies support their earlier conclusion (1993) that chocolate addiction is due to a disordered eating pattern rather than any supposed drug effects. Even the chocolate cravers attributed their addiction to the sensory features of chocolate rather than its biochemistry.

There is no evidence that chocolate is addictive. Instead we crave chocolate because it tastes good. It seems that we have hit upon the greatest taste in the world, thus giving chocolate makers the privilege of providing a constant supply of pleasure. Indeed, Dr Rossner of the Karolinska Hospital in Sweden speculates that a cure for chocolate craving may be detrimental to health: "If chocolate craving is cured, what would the consequences be? Deep depression, a baby boom when sex replaces chocolate craving, or some other unwanted consequences of chocolate loss?" (Rossner 1997). It seems that chocolate is more than pleasure. It is also very good for your well-being.

Benton D (1998). An overview of dietary factors affecting mood and mental performance. Kellogg Nutrition Symposium, Sydney NSW.
di Tomaso E, Beltramo M, Piomelli D (1996). Brain cannabinoids in chocolate. Nature 382, 677-678
Hetherington MM & Macdiarmid Jl (1993). "Chocolate addiction": a preliminary study of its description and its relationship to problem eating. Appetite 21, 233-246
Hetherington MM & Macdiarmid JI (1995). Pleasure and excess: Liking for and overconsumption of chocolate. Physiology & Behaviour 57, 27-35
Hoskin JC (1994). Sensory properties of chocolate and their development. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 60 (supplement), 1068s-1070s
Macdiarmid JI & Hetherington MM (1995). Mood modulation by food: An exploration of affect and cravings in "chocolate addicts". British Journal of Clinical Psychology 34, 129-138
Michener W & Rozin P (1994). Pharmacological versus sensory factors in the satiation of chocolate craving. Physiology & Behaviour 56, 419-422
Rossner S (1997). Chocolate -- divine food, fattening junk or nutritious supplementation? European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 51, 341-345
Rozin P, Levine E & Stoess C (1991). Chocolate craving and liking. Appetite 17, 199-212
Schifano F & Magni G (1994). MDMA ("Ecstasy") Abuse: Psychopathological features and cravings for chocolate: A case series. Biology and Psychiatry 36, 763-767
Weingarten HP & Elston D (1991). Food cravings in a college population. Appetite 17, 167-175

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