Why does chocolate seem to improve our mood?
We are socially programmed to link certain foods with mood. Had a long day, feeling sad or stressed and reach for chocolate. Does it help? Possibly, but why? Is it just the thought or the taste we enjoy that improves our mood? Is there a scientific reason behind it?
Chocolate contains cocoa. Some chocolate more than others. The cocoa level e.g. 70% cocoa, is generally marked on the packet. To make things confusing there is cacao and cocoa. Cacao are the seeds before they are processed to be ground into a powder. Both cacao and cocoa contain polyphenol compounds, particularly flavenoids. These are micronutrients found in plant foods that have antioxidant activity in the body. Antioxidants protect our body from damage and reduce the risk of chronic disease, such as heart disease and can reduce inflammation.
Only about 5-10% of the polyphenols are absorbed in the small intestine. The rest pass to the large intestine where gut bacteria break them down into smaller metabolites that can be absorbed into the blood stream. This may be where the greatest health benefit occurs.
Our gut bacteria are crucial to how many polyphenolic compounds are metabolised and absorbed. The polyphenols are crucial to our gut bacteria as they are a food source (prebiotic like effect).
Research shows that some polyphenols have positive effects on the mood centre of the brain, the hippocampus. Animal studies have shown an increase in the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin, that has 90% of its supply produced by the gut. More research is needed to see what the effects are in humans, however it looks promosing that a diet high in polyphenols is beneficial.
For now, enjoy a little dark chocolate (Lucky Rokeby Farms has a Dutch chocolate breakfast smoothie flavour,) with the highest cocoa level you can (it becomes more bitter with higher cocoa). Along with a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains, which are packed with a range of polyphenols, vitamin, minerals and dietary fibre. Sprinkle with antioxidant rich herbs and spices, after all variety is the spice of life!