A pile of crumbled chocolate is shown.

Chocolate Psychology

Chocolate has a psychology. Nougat does not, even though both confections are popular, with long histories.

According to legend, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés did not enjoy his first cup of chocolate, offered to him by the Aztec ruler Montezuma. It was bitter; but, with the addition of sugar became a fad that swept Spain and in 2019 accounted for over 130 billion dollars in sales revenue as the most popular candy despite a lukewarm response in China and some other Asian countries.

Nougat may have enjoyed greater success as an operating system than as a candy. Why do so many people like chocolate?

Flavor is often described as a combination of taste and smell, which is a limited opinion. It’s worth a moment’s thought to consider why some flavors are good and some are bad. It’s not a matter of sensory transduction but of hedonic preferences. It’s pretty clear that “yumminess” is assigned to tastes and smells by the orbitofrontal cortex (or see this site). Yuckiness may be more complicated, but you can find clues here, there and yonder.  Some tastes, smells, and flavors are good or bad depending on circumstances. Integrating all of this sensory and hedonic information may occur in the insula.

Then from taste and smell and other senses, the brain constructs flavor, which is not a sense but a mixture. It is commonly said that flavor is equal to taste plus olfaction and touch (texture). Is this true? Can you think of factors other than taste, smell, and touch that distinguish the flavors of, say, grilled and boiled brisket of beef? Or how about hot dry oats and hot oatmeal?

Shepherd has pointed out that almost all of the senses are involved in flavor. You might consider influences such as heating (but not too much), cooling (but not too much), expectations, color, texture (which involves more than touch, as chewing gum manufacturers can attest) and early experience, or you might think of others. Which makes more sense to you, the old “flavor = taste + smell + touch” or the flavor pyramid of food professionals?

Cocoa pods on a cacao tree are shown.

BIO: Our reactions to chocolate start with its chemistry. A huge number of chemicals are found in chocolate, hundreds of them affecting its flavor. Yet the crucial flavorants develop in many other plants, too (see attachment). The special attraction of chocolate depends additionally on its roasting and processing, which includes fermentation and drying of the beans. Commercial chocolate will usually contain sugar or other sweeteners, too. This varies.

Among the many ingredients in chocolate are psychoactive substances such as theobromine.

PSYCHO: As Cortés demonstrated, a taste for sweets may be inborn but a taste for chocolate is acquired. Chocolate is not sweet by itself, but adulthood brings a tolerance for bitterness and a decline in the preference for sweets.

We do more than tolerate chocolate for its bitterness, of course. What draws us as adults to dark chocolate as well as the sweeter milk chocolate?

For one thing, people who eat dark chocolate have a greater tolerance for bitterness than those who prefer milk chocolate. An attractive aroma beckons those who tolerate the bitter taste.

Chocolate lovers value more than flavor. The texture qualities, the snap and melt, the astringency, are largely engineered into the product. As with wine, tasters seem to compete to draw more and more elaborate experiences of…candy?

There’s more to chocolate than we find in most candies. There are behavioral consequences that reinforce chocolate consumption. These tend to be hypothetical, plausible rather than proven causes. Perhaps vasodilation, essential for male sexual performance, led to chocolate’s overdrawn reputation as an aphrodisiac. Substances like anandamide and theobromine and phenylethylamine and serotonin suggest ways for chocolate to enhance happiness. Cocoa flavanols may promote heart health and offer cognitive benefits or, for whatever it’s worth, brain activation. If real, these many effects are small.

A few people still argue that chocolate is useful for losing weight., despite a still-recent and smoldering hoax that fooled many consumers but makes an enjoyable story now. Other myths may survive.

SOCIAL: Because chocolate is not sweet when it’s pried in cocoa beans from the pod, there is no reason for spatial memory to flag the places where it grows. We must rely on the Internet. We might view chocolate consumption as a worldwide phenomenon, but there is widespread indifference to chocolate and even outright hatred.

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