Bradley J. Fikes
White chocolate. Dark chocolate. Sprinkled with crunchy almonds. Lusciously draped over strawberries.
Folk wisdom attributes marvelous mood-boosting powers to this most esculent discovery of the ancient Mayans and Aztecs. (Their version would have been unappetizing to us, a bitter, foamy drink).
But according to a new study from UC San Diego and UC Davis researchers, there's scientific evidence of a link between chocolate and mood.
People with depression eat more chocolate, according to the study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. No such relationship was found with other foods, said study co-author Beatrice Golomb, an associate professor of internal medicine at UCSD School of Medicine.
Chocolate is already known to contain an array of healthy substances known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and to confer other benefits.
Researchers surveyed 931 men and women from the San Diego area about their moods and their eating habits. Those screening positive for depression ate more chocolate than those not depressed.
"Many of us introspectively think that, when we feel crappy, we eat chocolate," said Golomb, who said she's personally fond of the mouthwatering confection.
Those showing signs of depression consumed an average of 8.4 servings of chocolate per month, compared with 5.4 servings per month among those not showing such signs. And those whose scores reflected probable major depression ate the most chocolate of all, 11.8 servings per month.
Golomb cautioned that the study was a "slice in time" that didn't determine cause and effect. And it's even possible that the presumed cause and effect could be reversed, with eating more chocolate causing depression.
To show whether there is a causal relationship, and in which direction, participants in a randomized study must be tracked over a period of time, to find out how their moods correlate with chocolate consumption.
"That would be a bit of a challenging study to do, and we don't have plans to do that just now," Golomb said.
There's some theories as to why chocolate would perk up your day. Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, contains healthful antioxidants such as phenols, also found in red wine. Oxidative stress may be linked to bad moods, Golomb said. Chocolate also contains substances that affect brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.
Chocolate vendors such as Carlsbad-based Chuao Chocolatier keep up with the research.
Chocolate contains antioxidants called flavonoids that are known to improve heart health and have anticancer properties, pointed out Jonathan Smiga, Chuao's chief operating officer.
"When the blood is flowing well, physiologically, I think we're at our best," Smiga said.
Chocolate contains anandamide, a lipid, or fat molecule, that resembles THC, the active substance found in marijuana, Smiga said. Research indicates that both substances activate a mechanism that produces dopamine.
Relax: It's not illegal. Chocolate contains no THC, and the brain also produces anandamide. It is broken down quickly, however, and chocolate provides a boost to anandamide levels.
Chocolate's reputation as a mood-booster makes it a common and appreciated gift, said Tom Pineda, sales director of Solana Beach-based Jer's Handmade Chocolates. The company specializes in chocolate/peanut butter treats, high-end versions of those you can get in vending machines.
"I'm sure that not only for personal indulgence and satisfaction, folks give chocolate to pick people up when they're down," Pineda said. "It's something to inspire folks."
Eileen Burke, owner of Queen Eileen's Gift Baskets and Gift Shop in Encinitas, said she appreciates chocolate both as a seller and as a consumer.
"For me it's an addiction," Burke said. "If I'm at a counter and I see a chocolate truffle in the little case, I cannot not buy it. It's a craving and a comforting thing."
For her customers, Burke makes chocolate-filled gift baskets. "We bake our own chocolate chip cookies, and we carry Godiva chocolates. We have Ghirardelli," Burke said.
And nothing draws a crowd like free chocolate, she said.
"Over the weekend, for example, we had a booth at the (Encinitas) Street Fair," Burke said. "We told everybody we had free chocolate chip cookies in the store, and they all beelined in here."
Call staff writer Bradley J. Fikes at 760-739-6641. Read his blogs at bizblogs.nctimes.com.
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Copyright © 2010, North County Times, Escondido, Calif.