As Valentine's Day approaches, Cathy Cunningham, a Tennessee Technological University human ecology professor whose expertise in food, nutrition and dietetics is surpassed only by her passion and knowledge about chocolate, is sharing some fun facts about chocolate and the reason some consider it a daily requirement.
"Chocolate is a stimulant, an aphrodisiac and sometimes addictive," said Cunningham. "Its Greek name, theobroma cacao, literally means food of the gods because it has always acted as a mood raiser and creates an endorphin-like reaction in many people."
In a 1996 San Diego Neurosciences Institute study, chemicals found in chocolate seemed to go after the same brain receptors system targeted by marijuana. In theory, people could even get high on chocolate -- though not easily. Unlike the active ingredient in marijuana, chocolate's chemicals turn on only a few circumscribed regions of the brain. A 130-pound person would have to eat about 25 pounds of the stuff in one sitting to get a noticeable buzz.
And what about the theory that chocolate is a substitute for love because of its chemical properties? Cunningham said even chocolate isn't that powerful.
"For years, researchers have suspected that a hankering for a Hershey bar comes from desire -- especially among women -- for certain chemicals found in chocolate, ones that mimic the brain chemistry of people in love," Cunningham said. "But it turns out a recent study reported in Time magazine concluded U.S. women lust for chocolate twice as much as Spanish women do, suggesting craving chocolate is a learned behavior and can be unlearned."
CHOCOLATE -- THE PROCESS BEHIND THE PLEASURE Cunningham points out the vocabulary of chocolate is as special as its effects, with words such as "conching" and "nibs." And she says the glorious pieces inside those frilly Valentine's boxes start with pods and machetes.
"Pods of the cacao tree are broken open with machetes to get nibs, bean-like pieces in a gelatinous, slimy substance," explained Cunningham. "Then, nibs are dried during a natural slow drying process. The secret to the process is the chemical reaction that takes place when the nibs ferment and release natural enzymes that create a unique substance."
After the nibs dry, they are then pressed and refined and the liquor is separated from the remaining powder, producing two substances, cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Chocolate makers add ingredients like sugar and milk, but historically, chocolate was used as a bitter drink.
"In a chocolate factory you'll see paddles making chocolate waves in luscious brown oceans," she said. "Raw chocolate must be tempered for 72 hours before it can be used, so it is stirred with big slow paddles in a process of heating called 'conching.'"
"Compound chocolate is the good stuff," said Cunningham. "If you replace the natural oils with cheaper substitutes such as peanut oil, you get the cheaper versions of chocolate, something I consider the desecration of a good nib."
MISCELLANEOUS CHOCOLATE MORSELS
Cunningham's favorite party game, "Taste the Chocolate," involves a blind taste test to see if guests can identify their favorite chocolate. She finds many people will pick a higher quality chocolate than they are used to eating.
"In a blind taste test, the senses of smell and taste are heightened, and people are really able to experience the chocolate," she said. "They don't have the wrapper or the television commercial to tell them what's good, so they pick what really tastes the best."