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Culture: Thank you for the music More than a sweet nothing; According to new evidence uncovered by archaeologists in Central America, the Ancient Incas enjoyed chocolate back in 600 BC. So just why is it so appealing? Rachel Williams examines mankind's centuries-old love affair with the cocoa plant.

Byline: Rachel Williams

Bridget Jones sought solace in chocolate, Casanova claimed it gave him the stamina he needed to sustain his love life and now there is evidence that our love of the sensuous substance stretches back thousands of years.

A study of 2,600-year-old Mayan pottery from Belize has identified cocoa residues thought to have been left by an ancient form of drinking chocolate, a discovery which pushes back the earliest chemical evidence of cocoa use by about 1,000 years.

But what is the key to this enduring popularity? We've all used chocolate as a pick-me-up and there have been various scientific investigations - but it's still hard to put your finger on exactly why it hits the spot like nothing else.

According to recent research commissioned by Cadbury Dairy Milk, it's probably a lot simpler than you might previously have imagined.

A survey of 1,000 volunteers found almost 70 per cent of those who ate at least one bar of chocolate a day over a week-long study felt happy - compared to just 41 per cent of those who ate no chocolate at all.

Dr Dylan Evans, an evolutionary psychologist from the University of Bath, says the research proves the long-held belief that eating chocolate really does make you happy.

'Statistically this is a very robust result,' he says. 'It shows the moodenhancing properties of chocolate are even more powerful than we imagined.

'The effects seem to last a lot longer than was previously thought, suggesting they're not just down to a sugar boost which lasts only ten or 15 minutes. Even after several hours people who'd eaten chocolate were still happier than those who hadn't.'

And a review of previous research also commissioned by Cadbury concluded that this boost is probably not a result of any of the biologically active ingredients in chocolate, such as caffeine, but a psychological reaction to the enjoyable taste and smell of chocolate.

Most of these substances exist in higher concentrations in other foods with less appeal than chocolate, such as cheddar cheese and sausages, which both contain more phenylethylamine than chocolate.

'Why chocolate makes you happy is still something of a mystery,' says Dr Evans. 'But it seems that the psychoactive substances in it are present in such small quantities that it's unlikely they could explain chocolate's moodenhancing qualities.

'It's probably more to do with psychological factors, so it may have to do with the pleasurable taste itself, or some of the strange ideas people have about chocolate.

'People fantasise about it in a way they don't about other foods. It may be the feeling that they are rewarding themselves which makes them happy when they eat it.'

Tests have shown the intense effects of chocolate on the 'pleasure centres' in the brain are most similar to the effects of listening to pleasant music or receiving a surprise reward of money.

Certainly it seems the power of cocoa has long been worshipped. The Aztecs saw chocolate as sacred, associated it with the god of fertility and even levied their taxes in cocoa beans.

One of their emperors, Montezuma, used to consume an incredible 50 goblets of chocolate drink a day, such was his love for it.

Perhaps he had guessed some of the more recent encouraging discoveries about the cocoa bean's properties.

According to Dr John Ashton, principle food research scientist at the University of Newcastle in Australia, eating chocolate can have significant health benefits.

'All those negative thoughts you've had about chocolate and those guilt feelings experienced after you've enjoyed it can now be put aside,' says his daughter-in-law Suzy Ashton, with whom he co-wrote the book A Choco-late A Day - Keeps The Doctor Away. 'Chocolate is good for us.' They explain that chocolate is rich in anti-oxidants which protect cells against damaging and ageing.

It is well known these days that red wine contains such anti-oxidants, which are beneficial in reducing the incidence of heart disease, but the Ashtons highlight the fact a 40g bar of chocolate contains about the same level of them as a glass of red wine.

While fruits and vegetables are good sources of natural anti-oxidants, none of them come near the levels found in the cocoa bean.

And this isn't the only health-booster found in chocolate.

'It contains minerals such as calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, potassium, chromium, zinc and manganese. It really can be considered a natural mineral supplement,' says Suzy Ashton.

Because chocolate is low in sodium and high in potassium, it can also help counteract some of the imbalances caused by our high intake of highly processed convenience foods, which often have a high salt content, she adds. So you can enjoy the pure pleasure of eating chocolate without the pain of worrying that it'll ruin your health.

CAPTION(S):

Clockwise from below, factory workers at the Cadbury factory in Bournville add to the annual quota of 500 million Creme eggs produced each year; two halves of Cadbury Easter eggs are fitted together by hand at the factory; chocolate ready for pouring at the Cromwells Handmade Chocolate factory in Upton-AponSevern; a shop assistant selects a bag of Cromwells chocolates
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 24, 2002
Words:857
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