Inside the ripe pods are the cacao tree's seeds: the cocoa beans.

Chocolate is a psychoactive food. It is made from the seeds of the tropical cacao tree, Theobroma cacao. The cacao tree was named by the 17th century Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus. The Greek term theobroma means literally "food of the gods". Chocolate has also been called the food of the devil; but the theological basis of this claim is obscure.

The beans that grow inside the pods of the cacao trees, flourish in hot, rainy climates within 20 degrees of the equator. Cocoa beans, don't develop their distinctive chocolate color, flavor and aroma until they have been fermented, dried and carefully roasted to precise temperatures. The roasted beans are then shelled and cracked into small pieces called nibs. The nibs are then ground, producing a thick, semi-fluid mixture called chocolate liquor, the primary ingredient in all forms of chocolate, except white chocolate.

Cacao beans were used by the Aztecs to prepare to a hot, frothy beverage with stimulant and restorative properties. Chocolate itself was reserved for warriors, nobility and priests. The Aztecs esteemed its reputed ability to confer wisdom and vitality. Taken fermented as a drink, chocolate was also used in religious ceremonies. The sacred concoction was associated with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility. Emperor Montezuma allegedly drank 50 goblets a day. Aztec taxation was levied in cacao beans. 100 cacao beans could buy a slave. 12 cacao beans bought the services of courtesan.

The celebrated Italian libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) took chocolate before bedding his conquests. This was on account of chocolate’s reputation as a subtle aphrodisiac. More recently, a study of 8000 male Harvard graduates showed that chocaholics lived longer than abstainers. The high polyphenol levels in chocolate may explain this. Polyphenols reduce the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins and thereby protect against heart disease. Such theories are still speculative.

Chocolate as we know it today dates to the inspired addition of triglyceride cocoa butter by Rodolphe Lindt in 1879. The advantage of cocoa butter is that its addition to chocolate sets a bar so that it will readily snap and then melt on the tongue. Cocoa butter begins to soften at around 75 F; it melts at around 97 F.

More than 300 different constituent compounds in chocolate have been identified. Chocolate clearly delivers far more than a brief sugar high. Yet its cocktail of psychochemical effects in the central nervous system are poorly understood. So how does it work?

Some of the Chemical compounds of Chocolate
Chocolate contains small quantities of anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid found in the brain. Sceptics claim one would need to consume several pounds of chocolate to gain any very noticeable effects; and eat a lot more to get fully stoned. Yet it’s worth noting that N-oleolethanolamine and N-linoleoylethanolamine, two structural cousins of anandamide present in chocolate, both inhibit the metabolism of anandamide. It has been speculated that they promote and prolong the feeling of well-being that anandamide can induce.

Chocolate contains caffeine. But caffeine is present only in modest quantities. It is easily obtained from other sources. Chocolate’s theobromine content may contribute to - but seems unlikely to determine - its subtle but distinctive profile.

Theobromine affects humans similarly to caffeine, but on a much smaller scale. Theobromine is mildly diuretic (increases urine production), is a mild stimulant, and relaxes the smooth muscles of the bronchi in the lungs. In the human body, theobromine levels are halved between 6-10 hours after consumption.

Cocoa and chocolate products may be toxic or lethal to dogs and other domestic animals because these animals metabolize theobromine more slowly than humans. The heart, central nervous system, and kidneys are affected. Early signs of theobromine poisoning in dogs include nausea and vomiting, restlessness, diarrhea, muscle tremors, and increased urination or incontinence. The treatment at this stage is to induce vomiting. Cardiac arrhythmias and seizures are symptoms of more advanced poisoning.

Different types of chocolate contain different amounts of theobromine. In general, theobromine levels are higher in dark chocolates (approximately 10 g/kg) than in milk chocolates (1-5 g/kg). Higher quality chocolate tends to contain more theobromine than lower quality chocolate. Cocoa beans naturally contain approximately 300-1200 mg/ounce theobromine.

Chocolate also contains tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. It is the rate-limiting step in the production of the mood-modulating neurotransmitter serotonin. Enhanced serotonin function typically diminishes anxiety. Yet tryptophan can normally be obtained from other sources as well.

Like other palatable sweet foods, consumption of chocolate causes the release of endorphins, the body’s endogenous opiates. Enhanced endorphin-release reduces the chocolate-eater’s sensitivity to pain. Endorphins probably contribute to the warm inner glow induced in susceptible chocaholics.

Acute monthly cravings for chocolate amongst pre-menstrual women may be partly explained by its rich magnesium content. Magnesium deficiency exacerbates PMT( pre-menstrual tension). Before menstruation, too, levels of the hormone progesterone are high. Progesterone promotes fat storage, preventing its use as fuel; and thus elevated pre-menstrual levels of progesterone may cause a periodic craving for fatty foods. One study reported that 91% of chocolate-cravings associated with the menstrual cycle occurred between ovulation and the start of menstruation. Chocolate cravings are admitted by 15% of men and around 40% of women. Cravings are usually most intense in the late afternoon and early evening.

Perhaps chocolate’s key ingredient is its phenylethylamine “love-chemical”. Yet the role of the “chocolate amphetamine” is disputed. Most if not all chocolate-derived phenylethylamine is metabolised before it reaches the CNS (central neurous system). Some people may be sensitive to its effects in very small quantities.

Phenylethylamine is itself a naturally occurring trace amine in the brain. It releases mesolimbic dopamine in the pleasure-centres. It peaks during orgasm. Taken in unnaturally high doses, phenylethylamine can produce stereotyped behaviour more prominently even than amphetamine. Phenylethylamine has distinct binding sites but no specific neurons. It helps mediate feelings of attraction, excitement, giddiness, apprehension and euphoria. One of its metabolites is unusually high in subjects with paranoid schizophrenia.

There is even a phenylethylamine theory of depression. Monoamine oxidase type-b has been described as phenylethylaminase; and taking an selective MAO-b inhibitor, selegiline (l-deprenyl), can accentuate chocolate’s effects. Some subjects report that bupropion (Wellbutrin) reduces their chocolate-cravings; but other chocaholics dispute this.

“Chocolate contains up to four times the anti-oxidants found in tea.” In fact, that was the conclusion of a recent study by Holland’s National Institute of Public Health and Environment. Researchers found that chocolate - specifically dark chocolate - contains 53.5 mg of catechins per 100 grams. (Catechins are the powerful anti-oxidants that help prevent against cancer and heart disease). By contrast, 100 ml of black tea contains a mere 13.9 mg of catechins.

Furthermore, while chocolate may not be the most healthy snack around, it does contain a number of nutrients. High in potassium and magnesium, chocolate also provides us with several vitamins - including B1, B2, D, and E. As for calories, no one is going to claim chocolate is the quintessential diet food. Still, the average chocolate bar contains approximately 250 calories - low enough for a dieter to enjoy one as an occasional treat. Besides, indulging your chocolate craving from time to time can help prevent the bingeing that is a dieter’s worst enemy. No matter what, I’m sure that all of us adore… chocolate… this sweet temptation!!!