Look at Life: Chocolate

25th March 2016

A Chocoholic Confesses

by Heather Harris

aphrodisiac… painkiller… relaxant – and full of enough vitamins and minerals to sustain a marching Ancient Aztec for an entire day. What’s not to like? Add to that the ability to earn £3.96 billion for the UK economy and there’s a sweet smell of chocolate in the air.

Sure, there’s the minor side effects of rotting teeth, spots and obesity but hey – let’s not spoil a positive intro. Aside from the volatile matter of eight-year-old me and a forbidden box of liqueur chocolates (which I do try to forget), I never tire of the subject of chocolate and the sticky derivative of the western African tropical cacoa tree has been a solid – and sometimes liquid (hot, topped with marshmallow) – companion of mine throughout the last half century.

It all started at nursery, held in the seemingly terrifying expanse of our local village hall. The only thing that would prize me from my mother’s apron strings (no lycra or business suits for ‘school run mum’ in those days) was the promise of a pack of chocolate buttons if I survived the morning.

Multiply that by the amount of school days in a term and I singlehandedly achieved the recent statistic stating that the average Britian eats an average of 17.49lbs a year.

In fact, every ten years or so, the typical adult will eat their own body weight in chocolate, according to one of the many mouthwatering scientfic studies dedicated to the psychology of chocolate. Interesting research project. Understandable too. Why would you mess around mating lab mice all day when some soft centred University will give you a grant to research the craving inducing effects of a bar of Dairy Milk?

Personally, I believe the addiction is all about association. Birthdays are celebrated with chocolate cakes, your first love is cemented over a box of Milk Tray on Valentine’s Day – or an entire tin of Quality Street when he breaks your heart – and find me a woman who can get through pregnancy or the menopause without a regular fix and I’ll eat my hat (and a share of her 17.49lbs).

According to the sweeth-toothed boffins at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California – among the several hundred different chemicals in your typical bar, the most significant is anandamide. This is found naturally in the brain and is similar to another, called anandamide THC, found in marijuana. The anandamine in chocolate makes the natural anandamine in our brain persist for longer, giving us a long lasting ‘chocolate high’, and explaining also why family gatherings at Easter seem so much less stressful than at Christmas. No such thing as a turkey-induced high.

Oxford University psychologists Edmund Rolls and Ciara Mccabe went one layer further. They scanned the brains of chocoholics and non-chocoholics (my Mum is the only person I’ve ever met who actually falls into this category) and found that responses changed even when the subjects saw pictures of chocolate, or had a piece placed on their tongue. Just looking at chocolate is enough to set off a craving (handy tip for dieters: stay out of all newsagents, supermarkets and garages, and away from all vending machines, billboards… oh, and don’t read any magazines ,where the risk of a sneaky photo of a Curly Wurly bar is but a page turn away).

My own favourite study is Life is Sweet: Candy Consumption and Longevity, undertaken by Dr I-Min Lee. In 1998 he tracked nearly eight thousand Harvard graduates and discovered that ‘people who eat chocolate live longer than people who abstain, possibly because of the antioxidants’ and that ‘chocolate consumers enjoyed on average 0.92 added years of life up to age 95’. Result!

Happily, the good news continues with recent reports showing that while old favourites such as liver, tea and Findus Crispy Pancakes are disappearing from our shopping lists – sales of our favourite sweet treat are soaring. Around 8,000 new chocolate products were introduced last year and when the American company Kraft took over Birmingham-based Cadbury in 2009, the public outcry could be heard from Mars.

I just hope that Prime Minister David Cameron has factored in this sticky issue in his debates with Europe. It’s bad enough that they’ve changed the ingredients in our classic cream eggs – if the Milk Tray man starts wearing a beret, we’ll be reaching for our No vote faster than you can locate the Purple Triangle.

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