Eating chocolate is an emotional experience. The interactions between chocolate and emotions are considered in the context of sensory pleasure, appetite, eating behavior, and food choice. The overriding consequence of eating chocolate is normally one of pleasure from the sensory experience, at least acutely. This pleasure arises from a combination of sensory qualities unique to chocolate that tap into both innate (e.g., sweetness) and rapidly learned (e.g., cues to energy density) influences on liking. Yet pleasure is rewarding, and rewards lead to habits. Furthermore, repeated experience of a reward, and the cues that predict it, teach the brain to want that reward. This “wanting” arises from fundamental motivational circuitry in the brain that can shape our behavior without conscious awareness. When this conflicts with conscious attempts to control our behavior, the resulting ambivalent motivation generates the sensation of craving – an urge to consume that is hard to resist yet feels uncomfortable – chocolate becomes “naughty but nice.” This situation can engender strong emotions, including guilt. Some people seem to be more susceptible to this than others: for example, women are far more likely than men to admit to craving for, or being addicted to, chocolate. Although female hormone cycles are often blamed for this sex difference, the evidence for a straightforward relationship is not convincing: nevertheless, there could be a more complex interplay between sex hormones, stress, and emotional and neurochemical vulnerability, which leads some people to seek solace in eating chocolate. Popular notions of chocolate addiction arising from chemicals contained in chocolate have yet to be supported by good evidence: even so, there are certainly psychoactive chemicals in chocolate, and interest continues in the extent of their impact on emotional and behavioral responses to chocolate.Chocolate can certainly alleviate negative mood, at least acutely. There are several possible reasons, including sensory pleasure and stimulation of stress-relieving opioid and serotonergic brain pathways. Chocolate has a special relationship with stress: when surveyed about eating during stress, less than half admitted to eating more, and yet the vast majority would admit that they usually ate more chocolate when stressed. Thus, chocolate is not only the most craved food, but also the most sought after during stress – the archetypal comfort food. In fact, sweet, fatty, highly palatable foods such as chocolate can reduce physiological signs of stress, such as release of the hormone cortisol. Nevertheless, there is a lack of evidence concerning the long-term emotional and psychological consequences of regularly eating chocolate.
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