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Hot chocolate

Why it’s okay to have a little now and then

I never used to be a chocolate guy. Typically my junk food yearnings leaned towards the greasy and salty, the hot and the tangy, rather than the sweet. I could eat pickles and potato chips all day.

Now I can’t wait for the Easter Bunny.

A dental surgeon pulled my wisdom teeth a few years ago. None of the teeth were seriously impacted so I wasn’t anesthetized for the procedure, but given some happy gas and local painkiller. I remember being in a great mood when my mom came to pick me up at the dentist, grinning like an idiot and drooling blood down my shirt. I put my jacket on inside out. For some reason I told my mom that "these were the best drugs I’ve ever had."

Then I went home and went to sleep.

When I awoke I was in serious pain. The happy gas had worn off, as had the local. I popped a few Tylenol 3s and a few Milk of Magnesia Tablets to ease the crippling constipation of the pain killers. I was physically sick a few times, likely from swallowing what appeared to be a bucket of my own blood.

I sipped a little water that day and went to sleep until the next afternoon.

When I woke up I found my face had swelled up to twice its normal size. I looked like a younger, fatter Alfred Hitchcock.

I couldn’t eat solid foods, or foods that were too cold or hot for three days. I drank warm soup to sustain myself. I tried eating a piece of toast and it felt like my stitches were popping out.

As a treat, my Mom bought me some hot chocolate, something I hadn’t tasted in years. I humoured her and made a cup for myself. And damned if it wasn’t the best tasting thing in the entire world.

Before the hot chocolate, I was sore and generally miserable. Every sip made me feel a little better until the mug was empty, and I was actually happy for the first time since the procedure.

I made another cup after that, and it was even better than the first. By the time I was well enough to eat solids I’d finished the box of 12 packages and was well into a second one.

Ever since that time I’ve had a funny relationship with chocolate. I crave it, yet I stay away from it because I didn’t want to be come some kind of Family Ties chocoholic, reaching for the tub of double chocolate fudge ice cream to console me every time something went wrong in my life. Besides, from what I knew it wasn’t healthy.

I knew chocolate was packed with sugar, caffeine, fat, and while I had heard that chocolate couldn’t cause pimples, how else would I explain the face on this one chocolate bar-eating tech geek at school?

Special occasions only, I told myself. Like Easter.

It turns out that I didn’t know everything. These days health professionals suggest that chocolate is relatively benign in moderation. In moderation, it can actually have a positive effect on one’s healthy.

The key word here is moderation.

Ever notice that chocolate doesn’t go bad? It may get a little white powder on it now and then after a long, long time, but you can honestly leave chocolate in the cupboard for months without it losing freshness or taste.

That’s because chocolate contains the same polyphenol antioxidants found in green tee.

Antioxidants bond with the "free radicals" in your bloodstream, such as excess minerals, effectively cleaning your blood and flushing out your system of toxins. They also protect against cancer, most likely by bonding with carcinogens in your body.

Chocolate also contains a substance similar to the THC found in marijuana. That’s why it makes you feel good, and why some people become raging chocoholics.

According to the International Food Information Service, "chocolatl" was first introduced in Europe in 1528, and was described as a foamy, bitter drink. It was brought back by an early explorer of the New World, after contact with Mayan and Aztec cultures in North and South America.

Cocoa beans were the domain of the wealthy and powerful, and these cultures believed that chocolatl gave them wisdom and power.

While Christopher Columbus was the first European to taste chocolate, it took the Conquistadors to recognize the economic value of the beans. It was called the "money that grows on trees."

According to the Emperor Montezuma, who reigned from about 1502 to 1520, cocoa was "The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food."

The Emperor Montezuma drank nothing but chocolate, mixed in with lots of chili, and used to down a cup before entering his harem.

The chili was replaced with sugar down the road, increasing its popularity in Europe.

Like Montezuma, Classic Italian makeout artist Giacomo Casanova also took chocolate before going to work, furthering chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac.

The Spanish kept the origin of chocolate a secret until 1606, when Antonio Carletti discovered the source when a bag of cocoa beans broke open. This is the origin of the phrase "spilled the beans."

With the beans spilled, Europeans rushed to the new world to set up colonies and plantations. But while the supply increased, there was enough nobility in Europe to keep cocoa elite. Chocolate houses set up opposite pubs and tea houses in the 1620s, and thrived.

It took the Belgian chocolatiers later in the century, circa 1670, to convert chocolate from a liquid to a solid form.

Around this time the demand caught up to the supply, and bakers in London began selling chocolate cakes to the general public.

Over the next few hundred years, chocolate became sweeter, milder and more appealing to customers. In 1847, an English chocolatier combined cocoa powder, sugar and coca butter to make the first real chocolate bars.

According to, Chocolate contains small amounts of anandamine, a cannabinoid found in the brain. While there isn’t a chocolate bunny big enough to get high off, chocolate contains N-oleothanolamine and N-linoleoylethanlamine, two cousins of anandamine that inhibit the metabolism of anandamine. Some researchers believe that they promote and prolong the feeling that anandamine can induce. In other words, the anandamine sticks around for long enough to have an effect.

Chocolate contains modest amounts of caffeine, which is a proven stimulant. It also contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid that promotes the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which diminishes anxiety and promotes a feeling of well-being.

Like other sweet foods, chocolate causes the brain to release endorphins, which generally made you happy and reduce your sensitivity to pain.

Chocolate is also high in magnesium, which explains why 50 per cent of women in that infamous study said they prefer chocolate to sex. Magnesium deficiency exacerbates pre-menstrual trauma, and helps to maintain a hormonal balance.

For all of its psychoactive ingredients, one of the most important is phenylethylamine, the so called "love chemical" or "chocolate amphetamine." While most people will metabolize the chocolate before the phenylethylamine can reach their central nervous system, some people are particularly sensitive to its effects.

Phenylethylamine occurs naturally in the brain, releasing small amounts of mesolimbic dopamine in the pleasure centres of the brain. This activity peaks during orgasm.

A build-up in phenylethylamine is associated with feelings of attraction, excitement, giddiness, apprehension and euphoria. Levels are also unusually high in people with paranoid schizophrenia, but we don’t need to worry about that, do I?

There are also a number of bioactive agents in chocolate, boosting energy, stimulating the heart and glands, opening your airways, suppressing hunger and exhaustion, increasing blood flow and blood pressure, enhancing mental agility and muscular performance. A complete explanation is available at

That’s not to say you should reach for a chocolate bar. Because of its high sugar and fat content in the kinds of chocolate we buy, moderation is key to maintaining good health.

If we went back a few centuries to the kind of cocoa Montezuma slammed back, chocolate would really be more medicine than junk food.

Now where are those damn Easter eggs hiding?