31 January 2012,

The psychoactive effects of chocolate…

Paradoxically, it seems that eating dark chocolate is one of the pillars of Dieting Success. Espoused by world-renowned experts ranging from Kylie Minogue to Sofia Vargara, including ‘one or two squares of dark chocolate’ is fundamental in avoiding food ‘cravings’.


OK then.


A few of my other heroes, the ones required to showcase their brains as opposed to bodies as professional wares, (i.e. academic psychologists), also spend time on the role chocolate plays in our diet. Researchers at Drexel recently published a paper that caught my attention:  ‘Psychoactive effects of tasting chocolate and desire for more chocolate’. It’s published in a place with a slightly higher pedigree than say, Hello! magazine, so I’m a little more inclined to believe what they have to say about this miracle food. The theme of course, is whether chocolate could be considered addictive.


In, ‘The Psychoactive Effects of Chocolate…’ researchers consider how chocolate might be likened to actual drugs of abuse. Who ever knew the gritty sides of scientific investigations could be so… interesting?


Were you ever curious about how academic researchers might work the phrase ‘Speedballs’ and Lindt chocolate into the same article? Or, rather, how speedballs might share sensory qualities with things like Maltesers and Aero bars?


Until now, you may have missed out on this exciting intersection of ideas. In trying to understand why too much chocolate is so treacherous for our thighs, we may have to consider our compelling desire to eat too much. As we inch towards the most romantic binge of the year, February 14, this becomes an increasingly important issue. So… why would dark chocolate enhance dieting, and milk chocolate lead to tears by the television? I’ll try and disentangle that today.


The consumption of fat and sugar (key components of chocolate) activates multiple neurotransmitter systems, including a release of dopamine and endogenous opioids. More specifically:

  1. Eating sugar and fat means an increase of both dopamine and endogenous opioids (i.e. ‘endorphins’) in really sensitive areas in the brain occurs.
  2. Eating sugar/fat means more Dopamine is released into the midbrain, cingulated cortex, hippocampus, nucleus accumbens, locus ceruleus
  3. Eating sugar/fat means increases gene expression of endogenous opioids in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus


The key is that both dopamine and opioid systems are stimulated at the same time. Do you know what else can stimulate opioid and dopamine systems at the same time?




I had no idea about this narcotic cocktail until I read the paper this morning, and I thought I’d share a few key quotes:



‘..Dopamine-Opioid combinations are commonly referred to as ‘Speedballs,’… ‘Activating dopamine and opioid systems at the same time is akin to the pharmacodynamic effects exerted by combinations of dopamine agonists (amphetamines and cocaine) and opioid agonists (morphine and heroine).


And, just so we’re all clear on what speedballs do:


 ‘Speedballs are more reinforcing than either dopamine or opioid agonists on their own…’

(i.e. either cocaine or morphine or heroine on their own don’t compare to Speedballs).


‘As a mixture of fat and sugar, chocolate could activate both dopaminergic and opioidergic systems…’

So, eating chocolate is like taking Speedballs?

Is this journal article about m&m’s, or a recap from an episode of The Wire?


Eventually, the study showed that the combination between sugar, fat, and the ‘drug-like effects’ contribute to how much a person will want to eat. We see that 70% and 85% cocoa content elicited the greatest ‘craving’- in men!


And yet, and yet… Here is where the story falls apart. Can we be honest about chocolate consumption? What man has ‘chocolate problems’? Especially dark chocolate problems? In all of my life of food and ingestive behaviour research, not once have I met a chocolate addict who couldn’t stop eating dark chocolate. And I have never met a man who was wrought with guilt after eating some milk chocolate buttons (or smarties). Guilt is a key sign of addiction, after all.


A chocolate addict is almost certainly a woman, and it’s almost always milk chocolate that elicits overeating. Those lucky ladies who claim their ‘one square of dark chocolate a day’ are almost a different species from people with chocolate addiction. Someone who genuinely likes dark chocolate is unlikely to have ever had an issue with chocolate addiction in the first place: if you have a high tolerance for bitter tasting foods (like dark chocolate) it’s unlikely the milk chocolate will have the same kind of stunningly rewarding effect. So those people who claim their one square of Lindt extra dark a day is keeping them on the straight and narrow path of dietary restraint are unlikely to have ever really suffered with the issue of overeating milk chocolate and those foods that are ultra high in fat and sugar in the first place.


…Something seems to be amiss.

Although, maybe not. In fact, all of this makes me think that there might be yet another parallel between drugs/food issue beyond neurotransmission. Like Speedballs, the admission of chocolate craving is so shameful that women are willing to lie in blind investigations about how much they’d like to eat more of it.


…Doesn’t that sound a bit more likely?



My advice, for what it’s worth, is to avoid the chocolate entirely at Valentine’s. Except for maybe the dark stuff… and, there may be better ways to elicit dopamine even still… (wink!) more on that next week.




Please see:


(Nasser et al., 2011)



Nasser, J. A., Bradley, L. E., Leitzsch, J. B., Chohan, O., Fasulo, K., Haller, J., et al. (2011). Psychoactive effects of tasting chocolate and desire for more chocolate. Physiol Behav, 104(1), 117-121.



3 responses on “Is Chocolate a Drug?

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