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Craving chocolate? Blame evolution

How many times have you gone a tad overboard trying to satiate your sweet-tooth? You can be honest, we’re not here to judge. In fact, we all know the story: you crack open a fresh block of choccy – because you deserve it, obviously – and you say to yourself ‘just one piece’.

Before it even has time to finish melting in your mouth you’re breaking off the next piece, and suddenly the chocolate packet is empty and your stomach is full (of regret).

That feeling of nausea should probably be haunting you – and at the time, you probably swore to yourself you’d never eat that much chocolate again. But the next time you come face-to-face with the sugary treat, you overindulge all over again.

Before you start kicking yourself about it, taste experts from Deakin’s Centre for Advanced Sensory Science (CASS) have news for you: science can explain why we just can’t get enough of chocolate.

It’s an evolutionary thing                                                

Professor Russell Keast, Director of CASS, says it’s chocolate’s perfect combination of sugar and fat that makes it so mouth-watering.

‘There’s no naturally occurring food that combines fats and sugars; there is no chocolate tree. So in evolutionary terms our brains are going, “wow, fantastic, consume more”.

‘Sugar activates sweet taste which is satisfying and drives consumption, while fat is high in energy and increases chocolate’s eating pleasure with ideal melting mouthfeel characteristics that consumers really appreciate,’ Prof. Keast explains.

This magical combination creates a strong fondness for chocolate, which Prof. Keast says is the reason we keep going back for more.

‘Even if we eat too much and start to feel ill, we easily forget this feeling, and the next time we have a chance to overindulge, we do it again,’ he says.

Although Prof. Keast notes that humans have learnt to steer clear of foods that make them feel sick, he says that the effect of chocolate in humans makes it different to anything else.

‘We can overcome the short-term overconsumption that makes us feel ill, because the high energy density is received positively by the body – so you just remember the joy of consumption,’ he explains.

The flavour debate: milk chocolate or dark chocolate?

CASS colleague Dr Gie Liem is an expert on chocolate taste, and he says its flavour mainly comes from cocoa solids – although exactly how it’s developed still isn’t entirely understood.

‘The two basic tastants that dominate chocolate – among a wide variety of other flavours –are sweet and bitter,’ Dr Liem says. ‘Most chocolate contains a considerable amount of sugar, with milk chocolate being approximately 45% sugar and dark chocolate going from 0 to 45%, depending on brand and type.’

Dr Liem says as we age, our taste for dark chocolate, with its distinctly bitter notes, grows.

‘A dislike for bitter taste is actually rather functional, because many toxic foods in nature taste bitter,’ he says.

'Even if we eat too much and start to feel ill, we easily forget this feeling, and the next time we have a chance to overindulge, we do it again.'

Professor Russell Keast,
Director of Deakin's Centre for Advanced Sensory Science (CASS), Deakin University

‘Children in general dislike bitter notes in foods, while adults learn to enjoy some bitter foods such as coffee, alcohol or dark chocolate. This is likely to be related to repeated exposure and the positive post-ingestive consequences of these foods. We feel good after we eat them.’

But if you’re favouring dark chocolate over its sweeter counterpart for the supposed health benefits, Dr Liem has some news for you:

‘There are lots of myths regarding antioxidants and the good stuff in chocolate. You need to eat a very large amount of chocolate to have any (if any) benefit from the antioxidants in it,’ he says.

‘If you eat this much chocolate, you better be worried about the amount of calories you consume.’

In fact, dark chocolate doesn’t have any less calories than milk chocolate. The evidence that indicates dark chocolate is better for you is around the fact that we simply tend to eat less of it.

‘The intense flavour of bitter chocolate and the usually harder texture causes us to stop sooner than if we were to eat milk chocolate,’ Dr Liem says. ‘It’s been shown that people feel more satisfied or full, and feel less desire to eat something sweet, fatty or savoury, after they consume dark chocolate compared to milk chocolate.’

Your love for chocolate probably isn’t an addiction

For all you self-dubbed chocoholics out there, Prof. Keast says your adoration of chocolate isn’t so much due to a crippling addiction, but because it saturates so many of our favourite celebrations throughout life.

‘Some studies have further demonstrated that sugar activates the opioid and dopaminergic reward centres in the brain. I am not sure the extent we can call sugar addictive, but maybe for some people it is mildly addictive in this way.

‘Then you add cultural factors on top of that. If that context is positive, the food often becomes special and positive. Chocolate plays an important role in many celebrations across the globe, especially at Easter.’

That said, when a craving strikes, Prof. Keast says it’s okay to give in every now and then.

‘Studies assessing self‐reported cravings consistently find chocolate among the most-craved food items, and other studies show the deprivation of chocolate flavour leads to an increase in consumption post‐deprivation,’ he says

‘So, self-confessed chocoholics may benefit from practicing moderation rather than outright denial due to the susceptibility to binge in response to a chocolate ban.

‘A good mantra to live by is everything in moderation.’

If you’re passionate about that mantra, and helping people improve their health, you should consider a career in nutrition. This is what it’s really like to be a nutritionist.

this. featured experts
Professor Russell Keast
Professor Russell Keast

Director, Deakin’s Centre for Advanced Sensory Science (CASS), Deakin University

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Dr Gie Liem
Dr Gie Liem

Senior Lecturer, School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, Deakin University

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