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03 October 2012
If there ever was a collective guilty secret shared by society it is chocolate. Who doesn’t smile inwardly at the thought of an intimate encounter with this popular food? We eat it, we drink it, we occasionally even wear it and it is a major global commodity. We know quite a lot about chocolate but a new study has shed a little new light as to why we so love this dark, or not so dark, treat.
Chocolate is not only globally popular, it has been around for a long time. Ceramic vessels from the town of Colha in northern Belize have been dated to 2600 years old and have been found to contain traces of chocolate. Central American successive civilizations from the Olmec to the Mayans to the Aztecs embraced chocolate with gusto. In fact, when Hernando Cortez and his Spanish conquistadors stumbled across the Aztec king Montezuma in 1519, he was in the habit of quaffing around 50 flagons of cacahuatl or xoxocatl every day. This drink was the forerunner of the hot chocolate we drink now.
Today Australians consume around 110 000 tonnes of chocolate per year which translates to 5.8kg per person per year. Around the world around 6 billion tonnes of chocolate are consumed annually. The reason why chocolate has such enduring and widespread acceptance is that it acts like opium in your brain.
Researchers from the University of Michigan have done experiments on mice and found that eating chocolate stimulates the release of a natural opium like substance called encephalin. It is produced in a part of the brain called the neostriatum and chocolate boosts its production by a massive 150 per cent. Interestingly, the same part of the neostriatum that is activated by chocolate is also activated in the brains of obese people when they see food and in drug addicts when they see drug scenes.
It seems likely that encephalin may drive some forms of overconsumption in people. The next time you are found guiltily clasping an empty packet of Tim Tams just explain, “Encephalin made me do it.”