Money may not buy happiness or grow on trees, but when it comes to chocolate, both are true. Chocolate does grow on trees, and the chemical feel-good factor comes from the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug.
The Theobroma cacao is an evergreen native to tropical regions of the American continent, and its seeds or beans generate 4 million metric tons of chocolate produced each year, much of it from the Ivory Coast and Indonesia.
Chocolate consumption dates back at least 4,000 years to the people of present-day Mexico: the Mayans, Aztecs and their predecessors, the Olmec. Just as we do today, they roasted the fermented seeds from cocoa pods, ground the roast to a powder that they used to make a chocolate beverage, a cold, foaming drink much different from the substance we consume today.
Less than 200 years ago, the invention of the chocolate press by Casparus van Houten made it possible to separate roasted cocoa beans into cocoa butter and a solid that could be made into cocoa powder. This powder could be recombined with sugar and cocoa butter to produce chocolate suitable to eat.
In 1847, Fry’s made the first chocolate bar. The Swiss came up with milk chocolate bars in the 1870s, and Switzerland and Britain remain leaders in chocolate consumption.
But what about the feel-good side of chocolate? For a start, there is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, better known as caffeine. There is also a significant amount of theobromine in chocolate, a stimulant that also happens to be the molecule that makes chocolate poisonous to dogs.
Add to that the mood leveler serotonin and the natural amino acid tryptophan.