A Spanish researcher has a new clue to what motivates "chocoholics": a group of chemicals that might contribute to the good feelings associated with binging on the tasty treat. The finding is reported in the current (October 16) issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a monthly peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.
The researchers are the first to find that ordinary cocoa and chocolate bars contain a group of alkaloids known as tetrahydro-beta-carbolines, according to Tomas Herraiz, a researcher at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research in Madrid, Spain. In previous research, the same chemicals were linked to alcoholism, he said. The family of compounds, which are also known as neuroactive alkaloids, continues to be investigated for possible influences on mood and behavior.
The same chemicals discovered in chocolate are found in wine, beer and liquor, though no connection has been established between compulsive drinking and food addiction, Herraiz said. The combination of the newfound compounds and other chemicals in chocolate could help explain chocolate cravings, he said.
Unique properties of chocolate - including its combination of sugar, fat and flavors - are believed to contribute to its appeal. Some go so far as to call chocolate an addictive food. Scientists cannot explain cravings for the so-called "food of the Gods," nor determine whether it exists.
"Finding these active substances, combined with the known pleasurable effects of eating chocolate, may complete the whole picture of chocolate craving," Herraiz said.
Up to seven micrograms of the compounds were found per gram of chocolate, Herraiz said. The compounds are found in low concentrations in chocolate and are also found in foods that are not addictive. This suggests that they alone may not be responsible for chocolate cravings, he noted.
"Other active substances in chocolate, like caffeine and magnesium, are often suggested as potential contributors to craving," Herraiz said. "Now we can enlarge this list to include [these compounds]."
Higher levels of the compounds seem to correlate with the amount of cocoa in a sample, he reported. The darker the chocolate, the more of the compounds it contains, the researchers found.
The research cited above was funded by a grant from the Ministry of Education and Culture of the Spanish government. It is part of an ongoing study to investigate neuroactive alkaloids in foods and alcoholic beverages.
Tomas Herraiz, Ph.D., is a researcher at the Institute of Industrial Fermentation at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research in Madrid, Spain.
Materials provided by American Chemical Society. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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