Chocolate on the brain? There’s a reason for that

Carleton students hosted a discussion on wine and chocolate for the Science Café at the Wild Oat bakery.

Whether you indulge in the occasional piece of chocolate or you’re a certified chocoholic already craving your next hit, there’s no denying the primal allure of this delicious mood elevating substance.

Chocolate is packed with the psychoactive power to pick you up when you’re feeling down and even trigger an unremitting snack attack.

Remarkably, it’s all in the chemistry says Erin McConnell, one of two Carleton doctoral students who hosted a discussion on wine and chocolate at the Wild Oat bakery at the end of January.

“Wine and chocolate both contain substances, like ethanol and caffeine, that have effects within the brain,” says McConnell, who is doing her PhD in chemistry and adores milk chocolate. “Generally, both wine and chocolate . . . (make) us happy.”

Chocolate has the power to allure us with almost all of our senses; from the sweet taste to creamy texture to fragrant aroma.

But it also affects us at a psychological level, says McConnell, “evoking emotional responses that make these feelings even more intense.”

“You may love chocolate chip cookies not only because the active substances in the chocolate make you happy but because the smell of them baking in the oven may bring back wonderful childhood memories,” she says. “The feeling of anticipation and excitement is associated with the release of chemicals in the brain that result in a positive feeling.”

But it’s not just McConnell, and her cocoa conspirator, fellow PhD student Maureen McKeague, who has figured out the inner workings of these indulgent foods.

Some companies have attempted to mimic their effects in popular products; the most common examples being cola and energy drinks.

While the students typically spend their time pursuing academic subjects – McKeague researching how nucleic acids called aptamers bind with specific molecules for a process called homocysteine and McConnell focusing on dopamine – chocolate and wine offered the pair a sweet retreat.

“We figured (people) would appreciate learning about some of the chemistry behind their favourite indulgences,” says McKeague.

The students are no strangers to dressing up scientific concepts for mass consumption. In November, they won top prize in a Science Magazine contest to describe PhD research through interpretive dance.

“Many non-scientists think that chemistry is too complicated and not-relevant to them,” says McKeague. “Chemistry is actually at work and important in our everyday lives.”

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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