Craving chocolate is so well-established in many Western societies that it is almost a clich?. But why do we crave it? Is it purely psychological, or are there physiological reasons, something in the chemistry, that makes us crave chocolate?
Chocolate is made from the seeds of the tropical tree, Theobroma cacao, and was considered a food of the gods by the Aztec. They used cacao beans to make a hot, bitter beverage called 'chocolatl,' a sacred concoction associated with fertility and wisdom and reserved for priests, warriors and nobility.
Although it was introduced to Europe in 1528, it was not until 1876 that milk, cocoa powder and cocoa butter were combined to first make the chocolate we know and love.
So why is it so popular? One theory is that it contains a mix of chemicals associated with changes in mood, emotion and addiction. These include phenylethylamine, theobromine, anandamide and tryptophan, all of which trigger mood enhancing chemicals and neurotransmitters to be released in the brain.
However, the problem with the 'chemical' theory is that none of these chemicals is present in anywhere near the quantities needed to produce such strong cravings.
As a result, researchers have turned their attentions to psychological factors. In an interesting piece of research, scientists found that subjects given milk chocolate, white chocolate, cocoa capsules, or placebo capsules stated that only the milk chocolate fully satisfied their chocolate cravings.
Furthermore, the subjects preferred white chocolate (which lacks cocoa, and therefore the chemicals found in chocolate), to the cocoa capsules (which have the chemicals but not the sensory components). The conclusion? Cravings are more likely due to the aroma, texture, sweetness and psychological associations.
Why do women crave it so much? One suggestion is that it has become a nutritional taboo - it tastes great, but is seen as sinful because it's loaded with fat and calories. Women crave it when they feel low because it is something they usually deny themselves. Research tends to support this - comparing American women, who see it as a forbidden food, with Spanish women, who don't, found that the American women craved it far more.
Overall, most researchers now believe that it is a combination of sensory qualities, chemicals, cultural and social values that contribute towards our obsession with this delicious confection.