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
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
Mmmm & Mmmms
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?
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.
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