The perfect drug


Chocolate is a romantic gift, a tasty treat, and a mind-altering food
By Charlie Weinmann

There are few foods more versatile than chocolate. Centuries before the age of Hershey bars and boxes of decadent truffles, chocolate was used as currency, a symbol of fertility, and as a means of survival. Now, it’s a holiday staple — Valentine’s Day is just one of the many holidays on which chocolate takes center stage.

But for Mike Cross, a chemistry professor at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Mass., chocolate is more than a treat. It might be the perfect drug.

And there’s no time when chocolate’s subtle mind-altering effects are more evident than Valentine’s Day, Cross told an audience at the Durham Public Library on Feb. 4.

“When we want someone to fall in love with us, what do we do? We give them chocolate,” said Cross.

How does it work? Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, which is also produced in our brain when we start to have feelings of intense affection for another person, Cross said. And the chocolates we give to friends and loved ones, when eaten, trigger the production of endorphins, which make us feel good. Chocolate also contains tryptophan; that helps our bodies produce serotonin, which gives us feelings of elation and ecstasy.

“When we want someone to fall in love with us, what do we do? We give them chocolate.” — chemistry professor Mike Cross

And if that love fades and someone gets dumped, well, chocolate can help you cope with a break-up. “We eat lots of chocolate,” Cross said. “Your brain no longer has that source of chemicals because you are no longer with that person, and so it makes sense that we self-medicate.”

The average American eats 11 pounds of chocolate a year, according to Cross. And as vices go, chocolate is not the worst.

“We are all going to choose to eat something that is bad for us, so it might as well be something that has some positive benefits,” said Cross.

Besides acting as a kind of love drug, chocolate has other health perks. It’s full of minerals like magnesium, which has been shown to decrease the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. The antioxidants found in chocolate are called flavanols, which are helpful in protecting our immune system from all kinds of hazards. Eating about 30 grams of dark chocolate a day can lower blood pressure, Cross said; it also causes more blood to flow to the cornea, improving vision.

“Dark chocolate has also been shown to reduce the cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods … mostly because you just ate a lot of chocolate,” Cross said.

Chocolate_Mike-Cross_by-Charlie-WeinmannChemistry professor Mike Cross touts the benefits of chocolate at Durham Public Library.

For chocolate to be most beneficial, Cross recommends moderation — and to avoid pairing it with milk. Our bodies have a difficult time absorbing the antioxidants in chocolate when they’re mixed with casein, a protein found in milk.

“If you go to the vending machine and pull out a Snickers bar, it really doesn’t count,” he said. “That’s one thin layer of pseudo chocolate on top of all the other stuff. It’s just empty calories.”

And, while Cross said there’s “no such thing as the best brand of chocolate,” it’s best to opt for the good stuff, especially if you’re wooing someone, or just pampering yourself.

“My wife always tells me, ‘You know, Valentine’s Day is coming up — I need roses, I need chocolate, I need diamonds.’” he said. “I teach chemistry, so I usually get the first two.”

Looking for local chocolate? Try these sweet shops:

Byrne & Carlson Chocolatier
121 State St., Portsmouth
60 State Road, Kittery, Maine

Kilwins Portsmouth
20 Congress St., Portsmouth

Lindt Chocolate Shop
3 Portsmouth Ave., Stratham