Do Dark Chocolates Produce a Happy-high?


By T.V. Antony Raj


Dark Chocolates

To many of us, the word chocolate means a sugar-loaded coating of a candy bar. Currently, many manufacturers produce chocolate with less sugar and more real cocoa, quite different from the bitter, deeply complex flavors of unadulterated chocolate products.

If not for my delicate teeth, I would rather be a Willie Wonka or a Charlie of the chocolate factory feasting on the scrumptious chocolate delicacies out there worldwide. I realize that more than 500 flavors of dark chocolate exist. Small wonder why I prefer dark chocolates that blend with my skin!

Due to variation in sugar content, dark chocolates get classified as bittersweet, semi-sweet, or unsweetened. Dark chocolate has a rich brown color without added milk solids. It provides a more distinct chocolate taste compared to milk chocolates. However, the reduced milk solids give a dry, chalky textured chocolate with a pronounced bitter aftertaste.

The basic ingredients in Dark Chocolate are cacao beans, sugar, an emulsifier such as soy lecithin to keep the texture, and flavorings such as vanilla. The soul of all the ingredients in dark chocolate lies in cacao beans. Without cacao (or cocoa), there would be no chocolate.

Extra Dark Chocolate - 63% Cacao
Extra Dark Chocolate – 63% Cacao

Often the wrappers of the chocolate products show percentage by weight of the ingredients in the chocolate. The cocoa content of commercial dark chocolate bars can range from 30% (sweet dark) to 75%, or even above 80% for extremely dark bars. These percentages signify the cocoa content in the chocolate, which in turn attributes to the bitterness in the taste of the chocolate.

In 1983, psychiatrist Michael R. Liebowitz wrote the popular book “The Chemistry of Love” published by Little, Brown, & Co. Boston. An article appeared in The New York Times based on his saying to reporters that “chocolate is loaded with phenethylamine (PEA)“.

Subsequently, the wire services and freelance writers evolved this statement into the tag “chocolate theory of love“.

β- Phenylethylamine

Phenethylamine (PEA), also known as β-phenylethylamine (β-PEA) and 2-phenylethylamine is an organic compound and a natural monoamine alkaloid, a trace amine. It is also the name of a class of chemicals with many members that are well known for their psychoactive and stimulant effects such as amphetamines that raise blood pressure and blood glucose levels. Scientists believe the brain releases b-endorphin, an opioid peptide, the driving force behind the pleasurable effects that let us feel more alert and produces a sense of well-being and contentment. This is why phenylethylamine is known as the “love drug” and the reason some consider chocolate an aphrodisiac.

The half-life of phenylethylamine is between five to ten minutes, and it is rapidly metabolized by aldehyde dehydrogenase, dopamine-beta-hydroxylase and by monoamine oxidase A, also known as MAO-A, and by monoamine oxidase B, also known as MAO-B. The last two mentioned are enzymes in humans encoded by the MAOA gene and by the MAOB gene. This metabolization prevents significant concentrations from reaching the brain, thus not contributing to perceptible psychoactive effect without the use of an MAO inhibitor (MAOI).

Scientific studies have established that PEA levels in chocolates range from ~ 0-7 ppm, despite the wrong assertions that “chocolate is a love drug – an aphrodisiac” by so-called pundits writing for the mass market, and repeatedly recycled misinterpretations on the Internet of data from the primary literature.

Note the following too:

    • In 1992, G. Ziegleder, E. Stojacic and B. Stumpf stated in “Vorkommen von β-phenethylamin und seinen derivaten in kakao und kakaoerzeugnissen” that similar concentrations of PEA, up to ~ 6 ppm have been found in variously processed cocoa beans.
    • In 1981, W. J. Hurst and P. B. Toomey in their paper “High-performance liquid chromatographic determination of four biogenic amines in chocolate” in Analyst 106 394-402 found that chocolate liquors from different producing areas around the world contain up to ~ 8 ppm PEA.
    • In 1987, G.B. Baker, J. T. F. Wong, R. T. Coutts and F. M. Passuto said in “Simultaneous extraction and quantitation of several bioactive amines in cheese and chocolate” that the highest concentration of PEA recorded, 22 μg/g (or 22 ppm, or 0.0022%), was found in Fry’s cocoa powder, presumably in a sample obtained on the Canadian market in or before 1987. It is possible that this figure is a misinterpreted (or that of 0.22 μg/g PEA found in a chocolate bar by the same investigators) is the origin of the level of 2.2% for PEA in chocolate that is widely quoted on the Internet since then.



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